Returning meaning to gesture: a resolution

December 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

Petr Pavlensky, 19 October 2014

Petr Pavlensky’s detainment on 19 October 2014

Perspectives must be fashioned that displace & estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts & crevices, as indigent & distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects — this alone is the task of thought.
~ Theodor W. Adorno, the closing words of ‘Minima Moralia‘ (247)

The path humankind has been, until now, following is one of productive limiting — the narrowing of a sign’s application so as to make it useful — but in the same stroke, we have been reducing our own potentiality. We have narrowed the scope of meaning in an ideal of significatory standstill; this we call “progress”. Evidently, there is a contradiction in this exclusionary precision which does not describe reality so much as it abridges what it sees.

The dominant constructions of connotation are in question. Usually, linguistics — designating the lowest common denominator of the study of signs — is used as an example to an entire practice of interpretation. Semiotics works to decode the grammar of ruling paradigms so as to understand them. The application of  institutionalized semiology today, against its founders, is to simplify life by maximizing communication efficiency. More & more, it’s becoming clear that the answer isn’t in using language that we can gloss over more quickly, rather in pausing to experience language in its richness, with its history, & accepting of its contradiction.

We study linguistics because the response to the ever-relevant questions What to do? What next? How to resist? lies in the interplay of signs. The relationship between actions & words is essential [on the most banal level, spoken language is enabled by movement] & it was not until the development of writing that the contract between them was broken. Humankind has undermined the richness of language in its attempt to stabilize meanings.

Deconstruction is not resistance, while reconstruction is. Not only do various “readers” of a word or text have multifarious reading histories — or traces in Heidegger’s terminology — which lead to interpretations equally multifarious, but we must also take into account the reader’s capability to recode a semiotic value. Such recoding is the only means of taking part in the creation of cultural meaning; popularly, this is called art. The name “art” is unsatisfactory as other brands of art can be imagined & have been eventuated under varieties of totalitarian ideology & rule. This propagandistic art does not create cultural meaning, rather it reproduces already-present interpretations to further solidify the illusion of a necessary relationship between signifier & signified. It is easy to attack Communist art on this account, but we must not forget that even under Capitalism the continuous propagation of the myth of self-creation & money serves the same purposes.

Every unconscious act of interpretation is an act of legitimizing one’s own thoughts — omitting the excess of meaning from the signs we encounter to comfortably read the information. Each time we do this, we are affirming that world & the grammar, or governing paradigms, that pertain to it, including the oppressions that are consciously or unconsciously part of the ethos. We are legitimized in this world by our use of these codes & the legal system determines which of our actions are valid & which not [by their recognition of the action]. To incite change, we must disrupt the tight web of signs & introduce into it elements for which there is no prepared response in legal, moral, or social codes.

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The inspiration: There have been a large number of reimagining the rhetoric of protest over the last decade; Pussy Riot seems to stand at the fore with their punk performance which required a straining of the law to imprison its members. The charge of hooliganism is now used to dismiss dissent as the charge of insanity once was — as the most flexible hegemonic measures of suppression, they are often over-used. Petr Pavlensky looks to resist Russian oppression similarly with performances such as sewing his lips, binding himself in barbed wire, cutting off an earlobe, or nailing his scrotum to the ground of Red Square. With these acts, he is showing the potential of free gesture; Pavlensky explains, “Armed with psychiatric diagnoses, the bureaucrat in a white lab coat cuts off from society those pieces that prevent him from establishing a monolithic dictate of a single, mandatory norm for everyone.” If the public feels bound by authorities it is on account of their complicity. Violence is not a prerequisite; resistance can also take up the undone thing of non-action, of stillness as Emir Hodžić & Erdem Gündüz did in Prijedor 2012 & Istanbul 2014 respectively. Before them all, Rosa Parks sat on a bus.

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The resolution: My resolve is to empower myself by quitting the constant conformity to existing paradigms of communication. I intend this for my day-to-day life as well as in a more profound public gesture of resistance. What’s critical is to become the author of one’s own actions rather than the subject of authoritarian perpetuity. This must come out not only in what we say, but also in everything we consume & do. It belongs to an ideology which discredits the notion that serious resistance must communicate with hegemonic powers directly by claiming that resistance is only possible once the web of signification of those powers is departed. I pronounce “progress”, when used to justify persecution & new forms of colonialism, my greatest enemy. We must not remain so delusional as to use progress as a form of directionless historical inevitability. Modern history has shown us — illustratively in the cases of Egypt, Russia, China, Hungary, & Iran, to name but a few — that the most recent truths are not always the most progressive with regard to human liberties & security. As such, progress & the acquisition of “truths” bear no relation to ethical codes. If we want to live as ethical beings, we cannot rely on progress blindly. Alternatives must be sought; serious alternative can only be sought outside of the common paradigms of communication.

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