A Fidelity to What?

“It would make no sense for life to create cowards,” said Jacques Lacan, about our desire. Why when we feel the tug and pull of Love, of duty to a calling, of resistance to oppression, do we cave so easily? How is it that we can so quickly lose life’s rose tint and suffer mediocrity till death?

This is the central question of Alain Badiou’s Ethics, in which he proposes an alternative to our current understanding of how to live a good life. He claims that our current system of dealing with the evils of the world is reactionary: we wait until something awful happens, and then we must act ethically in response. Evil pre-exists good in this context, and unless there is a crisis, there is nothing prompting us toward action. We see this view reflected in many of the seminal works that have shaped our world, notably Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, in which man is conceived of as a brute with an unhealthy penchant for war, and little else.

To counter this Badiou envisions what he calls an Ethic of Truths. It makes no sense to sit and wait until tragedy rears its ugly head, we must dedicate ourselves to achieving an authentic good over the course of our life. This is outlined as a convocation to a truth (this is his way of saying a fidelity to a cause, whether it be love, politics, art or science). If we each dedicate ourselves to a cause higher than our mortal lives, we can not only live a fulfilling life but one that actively seeks to enrich the world far beyond the moment we leave it.

This ties into one of my recent articles on love (https://therestissilencesite.wordpress.com/2017/04/07/a-radical-conception-of-love/) where the imperative, ‘you are ready to suffer’ defines our dedication to a fidelity. We have all heard it: “I will get it done, even if it kills me”, the man saving up for his child’s education fees, the author embarking on his debut book, or like in the image above, Marie Curie striving to understand radioactivity, all struggle for these tasks accepting that they warrant their suffering. These causes all represent the good in life, which we should pro-actively dedicate ourselves to.

Somehow, all of the compassions and empathy required of us in the ethical decision is directed to the other, the faceless object of need, the victim, the homeless, those seeking asylum; all of which we are bizarrely demanded to love unconditionally, or at least relate to. Barbara Creed’s outlines the concept of ‘the stray’, an animal (human or other) that is disconnected from society: “The human stray is an outsider, an other, an exile”, comparable to the street dogs of India. Is this not the kernel of our innate psychological disconnect from one another? How can we possibly dedicate ourselves to another when we have no real relationship with them when en masse, the others appear to us as objects rather than human. The crux of this is the moment of fetishistic disavowal (I know very well, but still…), where the other is the object of our attentive dismissal.

To combat this, Badiou prescribes an internal system of ethics, directed at ourselves; where duties of care are a byproduct of striving for a truth (keeping in mind that subjective truths are innately egalitarian fidelities), where our dedication to the other is an act whose will is in and of itself. In theory, this approach dismisses the difference between us, you and I may be each other’s antithesis, but in the middle ground lies a cause worth joining as humans.

In dismissing the other and acting virtuously without the need for stimulus, for the sake of virtue, we attain a kind of freedom. The other can be a victim, but society is also comprised of those that would steer you away from truths towards an inauthentic mediocrity in which your life is spent on gaining little more than you started with. Self-contained determination to make a difference, to leave behind something larger than yourself must in its very nature interact with others, Badiou argues that we must harness this.

Of course, this very elementary review of one book in a series written is little more than vague and introductory. But what we have already is an imperative, an infinite demand to dedicate ourselves to a fidelity that asks of us what we can never truly give it in our lifetime. As a system of ethics, one could argue all day about loopholes, or it’s own rose tinted naiveté, but it reminds us of the question of how to live. When asked about the system of ethics for psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan simply answered: “never give up on your desire.” At first, this sounds hedonistic, but perhaps it is our potentiality to enact good that Lacan had in mind, just as his pupil Badiou has today.

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The Chinese Have a Saying…

We long to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown. Certain combinations of words strung together the right way can produce something so enigmatic, so arcane that they simply must seize our attention, we cannot help but to question their meaning, and fantasise about what truth they could hold. The Chinese have a saying, the title of Sydney artist Brad Teodoruk’s piece above, taps into our desire to know what meaning lies behind a phrase. I sat down with Teodoruk to discuss his work, of which I find fascinating.

Words and images make up the fabric of our understanding of the world, and each word or image has connotations: an additional subjective meaning we derive from a word in our exposure to it, regardless of its original, contextual meaning. While the dictionary provides a concrete, empirical definition of the word; as words go through the process of communication layers of distortion are added, until finally, the word emerges meaning something completely different. Delving into the world of semiotics can shed some light onto this.

To understand this, we’ll start with the concept of a signifier: any word or symbol (a sign, or signifier) that has any meaning associated with it. With such a broad definition, it helps to categorise these signifiers concerning our response to them during exposure: some have very obvious meaning behind them, particularly if they represent real entities (think the Olympic rings). Things get more complicated as people’s idea of the meaning behind a symbol begins to conflict or conflate. In the case of the word “freedom”, we would find a myriad of interpretations all based on the subjective understanding of the concept of freedom. The conceptual space in which these signs exist and interrelate is known as what Lacan called the Symbolic order.

So where in the symbolic order does Teodoruks work sit? A piece as confounding as Pink Chilean (2017) asks a lot of its viewer. It’s impossible to find a logical perception of depth within the image, with incomplete images and concepts running their way around the canvas. How are we able to finish the artist’s sentence without any context?

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Pink Chilean 2017, Acrylic & Charcoal on Canvas.

What we are presented with is the confusion of a world without meaning, of pure thought without direction and the decimation of a relation between things.

 

Within the symbolic order, meanings shift and dissolve as social relations continually undergo change. This process is known as metonymic sliding, designated by a sliding signifier: a word or sign that over time attains a meaning different to its primal intention. Pop culture gives us an insight into the impact of this: the German film “Er ist Wieder Da” (Look Who’s Back 2015) comedically has us follow a fictional Hitler, back from the dead in contemporary Germany, into a taxi for an awkward cab ride. We see his reaction to the modern contraptions, and then his shock and horror at the rapper on the radio saying the word nigger. We laugh, understanding the current context of the work, and Hitler doesn’t laugh, a sad reminder of the past.

Teodoruk’s methodology is integral in achieving the semantic, conceptual core of his work. He takes words and images from old books, often regarding cricket or rugby, history or war, and in layers, paints them onto the canvas. The key to the ensemble is how it is created: each signifier Teodoruk starts with is obfuscated with confusing additions of colour, line and imagery (often an emotional curve ball will be thrown to disorientate the audience further). The juxtaposition of it all creates the effect of being lost in a labyrinth; we have hit a dead end in the symbolic order.

 

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Hooker 2016, Oil on Board.

Take Hooker 2016, what at first glance appears to be a tale of existential despair: we have the muted character, the large primitive red letters spelling out the title of the work (which in itself contains negative connotations to some), and a claustrophobic tar-green background. Teodoruk has you fooled. What you begin to see as an expressionist work of empathy for the downtrodden is turned upside down when we learn that the subject of the painting is appropriated from an old book of rugby, with the subject being the hooker of the team. This work is one in a series of similar works designed to toy with the audience’s engagement with the symbolic order.

 

What we have here is proof that our perceptions of reality may not always reflect our empirical actuality, and a fun reminder to maintain a certain scepticism towards what (we think) we are seeing. “The Chinese have a saying: I love that phrase. It could mean anything!” Teodoruk offers us an imperative to interpret signs to the best of our abilities but also to relish in the paradox of language: ultimately that a system designed to communicate meaning loses the intended meaning through the communicative process itself.

Brad Teodoruk is an artist practising in Sydney, he has a forthcoming solo exhibition at the Robin Gibson Gallery where he is a residing artist and is a student at the National Art School in Sydney.

You can find more of his work at https://bradteodoruk.com/

 

 

 

 

A Radical Conception of Love

“To study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one’s self to die”- famous words from Marcus Tullius Cicero. Rather grim and unfortunately pertinent to the last few essays this site has seen, having covered both the finitude of life and the psychoanalytic concept of ‘death drive’ last week alone. However it may seem, the macabre is not all important; what is all important, perhaps more important than anything else in the world is love.

The word love has many interpretations: Shakespeare’s fable of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet can arouse in some a feeling of romance, a longing for fulfilment through love; others hear an empathetic chord of tragedy. If the adage ‘it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all’ rings true, then there is no conception of love as inherently wrong or evil, there exists only good love in this world.

Love takes many shapes though, it is both an imperative and a promise and can be nurtured or unreciprocated. The Christian conception of love blurs these lines. In the new testament, Jesus issues a command to his followers (a command that seems to have been forgotten in modern day political conservatism), it is the commandment of love, which we must love all others as we love ourselves. Whether you are religious or not, the commandment offers everybody some conception of ethics, one that is egalitarian and boundless in its kindness and its sacrifice.

But this understanding of love need not be limited to the religious. In Faith of the Faithless Simon Critchley shapes the object of love into a radical philosophical form, one supported by both his colleagues and opponents, such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. He understands the object of love to be simultaneous impoverishment and enrichment; a destructive act of creation.

Critchley argues that the Christian conception of love is sacrificial citing the case of Marguerite Portete, a historical Christian radical who attempted to destroy her own being (she literately wrote about the abolishment of her soul, hardly a relaxing thought) to be replaced with the spirit of God. Contemporary Christian ritual reflects this notion through fasting before feast days and honouring saints (whom often die as martyrs). To him, it also represents an ontological destruction of the self: when we fall in love and fully commit that fidelity, this act of commitment destroys your ontological status of single, so that something greater may flourish. I believe we suffer this, desiring things we have now committed to restraining ourselves from: our egos must now bear the weight of the new superego imperatives of commitment.

However, Slavoj Žižek understands this suffering of commitment to a fidelity, expressed through his imperative “you are ready to suffer”. The pledge to any fidelity (the love of another, the love of a cause) is a stoic exercise of understanding the pain we will need to accept; this commitment is not motivated by external pressure or incentive, it is in and of itself.

The Christian interpretation of the commandment of love is one of incomprehensible magnitude: to love all. Can we honestly see ourselves ever achieving it? Critchley realises this impossibility as what he calls an “infinite demand”(which I had referenced in my previous essay The Infinite Demand of Democracy https://therestissilencesite.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/the-infinite-demand-of-democracy/): a cause which we can never actually achieve, and so we find meaning and purpose in the commitment to it. It also bears a resemblance to Heidegger’s call to conscience, to live authentically, which I covered in my last essay. Here we can reframe Heidegger’s question of Dasein (to be): our potentiality (the ability to achieve things in life) can be used to live authentically by committing to an infinite demand, the greatest of which is love.

To us, love as a purpose of life seems somewhat obvious, if not a little cliched. But undertaking a life devoted to love, of one and of many is perhaps the most difficult choice of all. Our situation that we are born into is one averse to love, preferring the preservation of the self before all. In a world of abundance, where are the samaritans for the hungry? Where are the samaritans for the desperate? We antipodeans believe we exemplify qualities of love: mateship, sacrifice, and constant toil for those who we share our island with. Yet every day we are fed an ideology that insists we abandon our identity, founded upon the greatest cause of all, in lieu of a selfish, causeless life in which we end up only slightly better off than the next.

And so through examining life, we return to the notion of death, the ultimate result of life, and to the statement “to study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one’s self to die”, remember Cicero? We understand that death is what drives us to live and now we too understand of love as a way to live. Through this Simon Critchley radically changes the adage “to philosophise is to learn how to die” to “to philosophise is to learn how to love”. A radical conception indeed.