February 7, 2008

Dim Sum: Christine Wertheim

Dear Delirious Hem,

Thank you for providing a space for this important discussion, and thanks also to Elizabeth and all the respondents for taking time to formulate and give us your thoughts.

As the organizer of the conference for which the Numbers paper was commissioned, I have been saddened by the lack of community-spirit displayed in the surrounding debates. The paper seems to have become just one more item around which to stage a status contest. In some ways I feel this applies to the authors themselves, who effectively failed to acknowledge the community out of, or for which their article was generated, (i.e., the Feminaissance conference organized by myself, Matias Viegener and Teresa Carmody at MOCA last Spring) an event on which large amounts of money, time and labor were expended; all we asked in return was a paper to which we would have first publication rights. (The book from this conference in currently in progress and will appear in Fall, with outside responses to all the papers.)

On the issue of essentialism--as many on Delirious Hem point out, gender is a political issue. We live under a form of patriarchy in which (subjects who inhabit) bodies 'seen' as marked, eg. female or black or queer, are treated differently from those seen to inhabit the only kind of body this patriarchy recognizes as neutral. Whatever we ‘liberated’ individuals like to think about ourselves, we are hailed by the world from outside our bodies as deviants from a norm that is politically determined by an extant power structure based on specific non-neutral ideals which effect the lives of people very differently. The fact that reference to such political matters can now be dismissed under the slur of essentialism is testament to the even greater power accorded the universalist rhetoric of neutrality since the inclusion, and abuse, of contemporary critiques of power into discourses on the arts.

On the designation of work as innovative/ avant-garde / experimental, etc. This, also, as many point out, is a political issue. Just as mainstream culture is still heavily rooted in patriarchal myths, so are many culture pools seen as marginal, or tangential to the main. What is interesting, (or perhaps it is not), is that, post-1850, western society has proposed that the aesthetic productions of some (special) marginals can act as indices of all that is holding us back from true liberation. That is, by their own demonstration of what they themselves have let go, they point us all towards the future. As far as I understand contemporary ideas about history, the enormous value placed on aesthetics in the modern era is largely grounded on this myth: that a group, (whether affiliated or not) of uniquely charged marginals, can act as the lightening rods to a better future, by providing new social imaginings for what we might become (given the assumed discontent with what we currently are).

Whether there is any evidence for the actual effectivity of this idea, of art as a tool for transforming the social imaginary, is a complex question. However, recent literary debates demonstrate that the idea of an aesthetically neutral-subject, or even the erasure of subjectivity from art altogether (which is of course quite different from losing the ego) is still considered by many cultural workers as one of the most important indices of futurity, and the place to which we should all be heading.

In other words, innovative/AG/experimental/future-oriented/liberatory artwork has become equated in some parts of the culture industry with the notion of subjective erasure. This is problematic for feminists and anyone else who conjoins with others to resolve an oppression specific to one kind of subjectivity. For if there are no subjects, there can’t be any female or black or perverse subjects either. Hence there can’t be any oppression, including the types of subjectivity which develop from the experience of being seen as a (lesser) other.

So, I think what I’m saying is this: while the terms ‘experimental / AG / innovative / etc.’ could be rethought, the question of whose Imaginary is cast as the index of our collective future is a highly important political matter. Marge Pearcy gives a brilliant look at two possible futures based on two current imaginaries in her book Woman on the Edge of Time. I wish we could collectively come up with some less militaristic terms to describe this problematic, but just as we must actively make space for the voices of those whose bodies are seen as marked, i.e., unneutral, we also need discursive spaces where other kinds of future can not only be imagined, but also dispersed for consideration; futures where even if we are all still given particular designations, no one group will be privileged as the Norm-al, neutral, non-contingent, ahistorical against whom all the rest are measured as falling behind.

Yours sincerely,
Christine Wertheim

1 comment:

lemonhound said...

I am intrigued by this conference, and the fact that it hasn't been discussed as the origin of the Numbers issue--is the book available??