The evanescence of the “material” and of the “cultural”: the impossibility of fixing a face. Some notes on experience, representation, identity – steps into an interdisciplinary field of inquiry?
Cet article est un chapitre de Overcoming the Modern Invention of Material Culture, coord. de Vítor Oliveira Jorge et Julian Thomas, Porto, ADECAP, 2006/2007, pp. 271-312 (numéro spécial de la revue Journal of Iberian Archaeology, publiée par l’association ADECAP: http://adecap.blogspot.com
The ideas sketched in this paper are a modest tribute to one of the greatest painters of our time and indeed of all times: Francis Bacon (born in Dublin in 1909; died in Madrid in 1992)
“What painting had never shown before is the disintegration of the social being which takes place when one is alone in a room which has no looking glass. We may feel at times that the accepted hierarchy of our features is collapsing, and that we are by turns all teeth, all eye, all ear, all nose.”
John Russell apropos of F. Bacon, 1979 (Quoted by M. Hammer, 2005, p. 17)
“When I look at you across the table, I don’t only see you but I see a whole emanation, which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to do in a portrait, means that would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens – a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.”
Francis Bacon, In David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 4th ed., 1993, p. 82.
“This face attracts us into a distance, a remote proximity, ponderableness of our transparency, because we are present in her, through a contemplation, which refuses to look at what shall not be seen, which crosses the visible in order to see.”
António Ramos Rosa (Portuguese poet)
Extract of a poem (inspired in the painting by Magritte, “Le Domaine Enchanté”) of the book “The Center at a Distance” (“O Centro na Distância”, 1981, included in an anthology published in 2001 – see bibliography) (my translation)
1. Introductory remarks
This paper – in fact, to be honest, these preliminary notes for a future enlarged work, that I hope to share with others – aims to escape the traditional rules of the academic paper, of the current argumentative discourse. It proceeds like a series of flashes, or insights, or aphorisms, which does not necessarily follow a simple line of thought (i.e., a real text, word that comes from the idea of textile, of some continuity with no apparent gaps). Many of them were written directly on slides, within a “power point” frame.
I hope that the reader understands that it is more then intentional: it aims to brake the separation between reason (un-embodied mind) and feeling (embodied knowledge), between argument (theory) and evidence (proofs, empirical data), between intuition (the beginning) and certitude (the pathos of revelation), etc. It also tries to avoid redundancy and “bad literature”, especially when done by a non English speaking person like me. Obviously, I hope to be able some day to organize many of the suggestions that I expose here into a more current shape.
Often the most interesting ideas come to our minds in a non-textual manner, or as fragments of texts (and the interest of the fragments is subverted by the linearity of the text). Life a sort of configuration, something with no precise contours and having, as a structure, no straight lines. The “author” is here a collector of fragments, of quotations, a maker of “collages”, which hopefully should give more freedom to the reader then the conventional text. Like a painting, or a piece of music. Not so much as an “open work” (reinforcement of the authoritative ideal under its liberal face), but precisely as fragments for a multiplicity of possible works (dissolving the centrality of the “author” and the authoritative argument and its rhetoric). “Bricolage” is the word.
Some quotations may be made out by memory: so, although they try to be rigorous, they are not systematically forced to mention the exact source or context from which that were “taken”, as it is the rule in a strict scientific paper.
Finally, having learned to think and write in Portuguese (and secondly in French), the translation of my ideas into a sort of “current English” makes many of them indeed appear as too simple, strange and very schematic; hopefully, it will have also some advantages (to write in a language which is not our mother language is also a way of getting some distance from our self-evidences, prejudices and habits). I prize very much oral and visual communication (the experience of dialogue).
To allow archeology to detach itself from a “representational”, “realistic” tradition (largely dominant) it would be very interesting to try to work within it like people do in a performance, for instance, or when some artists are making a modern piece. I mean: at least at a preliminary level of approach, a site, for instance, is not “there” to “tell a story” or to “represent” some general idea. It is just a site, and often just a small part of a site. At least at a first glance, it represents itself, it has no hidden truth to unveil – it affords an experience of dialogue, of shared dialogue between archaeologists and between their action and the features of the site, the locus of the setting. Instead of being a process of reduction, an observation should be a process of unfolding, of multiplication. Obviously, this is against the economy of fast-past production.
Actually, first of all, everything is about an experience of contact, of dialogue, between us, contemporary people, and areas around us, pieces of terrain where we intervene in order to “expose”, to take to the front certain features. In fact, to say “to expose” is already reducing and excessive, because in practice, and in a certain way, often we “sculpture” them, or we “make” them (through a series of choices), as an artist of land-art does. To contact with anything, even a small “trace”, is a unique event.
When we approach a site, a landscape, we approach something to be studied and recorded carefully, but that is not to be done in a rigid way, by some sort of “automaton”. Instead, that contact is made by lived people, who carry all their emotional experience to an unique event. We need to balance the “spirit” of science with the “spirit” of art.
The same attitude is needed to overcome many common sense “psychologies” about the human face. Again, we are dealing with something fluid, that we may examine attentively, but not to be frozen in some fixed meaning. That would be simply absurd.
Enlarging the scope of our approach, not only we will do more comprehensive work, and we will understand better the complexity of the situations that we are facing to, but also we may attain the freedom of spirit and the joy of the creative open mind that characterizes many contemporary “art experiences”.
2. At the very antipodes of mainstream “cognitive sciences”?
Perhaps one of the more “audacious” papers (all of them are always, at least, surprising and extremely stimulating) by Tim Ingold is the one titled: “From complementarity to oblivion: on dissolving the boundaries between social and biological anthropology, archaeology, and psychology” (in Oyama, Susan et al, “Cycles of Contingency. Developmental Systems and Evolution”, Cambridge, Massachusetts/London, The MIT Press, 2001, pp. 255-279).
The author criticizes a serious of conceptual distinctions and disciplinary boundaries, trying to reach a synthesis conventionally (or temporarily) placed under the name of his own field, anthropology – but the designation of that new discipline is not so much important (see p. 266). Anthropology “studies the conditions of human living in the environment.” (p. 265). Crucial is the idea that we live in one world and that “any divisions within” that “field of enquiry must be relative rather then absolute, depending on what is selected as one’s focus rather than a priori separation of substantive, externally bounded domains.” (p. 276). I could not feel more identified with these words then I do – every disciplinary boundary is now the main obstacle to the increase of our comprehension of the world, which shall not drive us into a situation of syncretic mixture. To the contrary: this is a pre-condition of the overcoming of our present impasse.
Therefore, in that synthesis the traditional divide between social anthropology and biological (physical) anthropology makes no sense; the same occurs with anthropology and archaeology. And, in the same line of reasoning, psychology, as the science that studies the human mind, should also be dissolved into this general field (ibid., p. 266). How? Let’s try to understand the very clear, logic reasoning of Ingold.
In the “complementary” (interdisciplinary) approach there is a need to link two (wrongly) separated realities: individual organism and cultural subject. That link being “human mind”, the crucial discipline here, would be psychology, giving way to a sort of mixed “biopsychosociology”. This triple complementary basis (biology, psychology, sociology) is already present in the well known classical approach on the body by Marcel Mauss (1934), as Ingold remembers us.
For the author, “mind” is an invention of modern science as “human genotype”, another concept that he dismiss in the same paper. In the line of F. Bateson (1973), mind is “immanent in the active, perceptual engagement of organism-person and environment.” (p. 265).
A traditional dichotomy of the structure of our culture, besides those of mind/body, spirit/matter, etc., is that between wholes and parts, assuming that the whole not only contains the parts, but that it is more that the sum of them (an hierarchical idea that comes from E. Durkheim, 1895). This notion underpins the interpretations of the kinds of relationships that individuals (taken as “indivisible, naturally bounded units” – p. 266) establish with the collectivity, an entity which is at a higher level of abstraction. This is indeed a very important point: the whole conceived as a matrix (as a model) for the parts, in a hierarchical mutual relationship (see below the references to Schaeffer’s thoughts).
Current social sciences have divided (and still do) the concern for the individual mind – the object of study of psychology – from the interest on the “collective mind of society” – the task of sociology. But this dichotomy individual/society – which corresponds to different departments and areas of research/learning in our universities – actually has no sense outside the common spontaneous ideas of our own tradition.
And Ingold (ibid., p. 266) adds: “(…) those capacities of conscious awareness and intentional response normally bracketed under the rubric of mind are not given in advance of the individual’s entry into the social world, but are rather fashioned through a lifelong history of involvement with both human and non-human constituents of the environment. (…) it is through the situated, intentional activities of persons, not their subjugation to the higher authority of society, that social relationships are formed and reformed.”
So “the process of social life” (p. 266) as a whole is a movement, not an entity. “Persons come into being (…) as differentially positioned enfoldments of this process, and in their action they carry it forward.”
Consciousness and social existence are, “in their temporal unfolding”, “one and the same” (p. 266).
If we accept so, then “perception is an aspect of functioning of the total system of relations constituted by the presence of the organism-person in its environment.” (ibid., p. 267). It is through practice and training in a particular environment that the human organism “developmentally” incorporates a mode of perception, capacities of perception and action, which are not innate nor acquired – another dichotomy that we need to overcome (ibid., pp. 267-268).
It is this line of thought that Ingold calls the obviation approach – stressing the importance of relations and processes instead of structures and event (p. 272). Here his argument is rather simplified, but I think that this paper of him deserves particular attention and should be considered as a point of departure for much so called “interdisciplinary” meetings (whose results, in general, are subject to doubt in the sense of an improvement of knowledge, or even at the level of promoting a real dialogue between peers; there is no time for a full length debate these days, “et pour cause”).
Obviously we need to be cautions in order not to go into the dogmatic acceptance of any author’s ideas, which is a very common attitude when we feel that he/she is right. Nothing is more against the very movement of thought, whatever it is, then freezing it in a serious of formulae. It is a very current abuse, though. The problem is not so much to accept a certain system, but to cross different approaches and to compare, by intuition, which is able or not to establish our own cartography, our own embodied guide to make things clear. Changing of points of view is crucial to build, step by step, our own experience field.
Memorization – Ingold says – is a very important process in the “developmental incorporation of specific competencies (…) through repeated trials” (ibid., p. 269) in order to learn, to get skilled and to be able to act, to perform an enormous range of tasks. “knowledge, then – the author resumes (p. 272) – (…) is immanent in the life and consciousness of the knower as it unfolds within the field of practice set up through his or her presence as a being-in-the-world.”
I think that this continuous process of learning, of acquisition of knowledge, is an outcome of an “education of attention”, to use words of Gibson often quoted by T. Ingold. The “regimes of attention” are extremely diversified throughout the world; they change in time and space, and ultimately, in their detail, they are obviously different from person to person. But, in spite of that, we need to find some regularities, i.e., to separate the general (that which seems common to every human community and individual) from the particular, accepting the contingency of any conclusion. We also need to find a logic of communitarian functioning that does not reify “society”, but also does not departure from individuals as “basic entities” – that would be a clear generalization of our Western experience. We need to account for power relations, and for the political economy, for how the distribution of value is in operation at every moment of “history”.
In his book “Suspensions of Perception” (2001), Jonathan Crary has showed how modern science is itself connected to a very special mode of attention (focusing in a precise matter and temporarily sponging out the rest), implying a subjective autonomy of the individual that is very peculiar of our Western view/experience of the world.
That raises some problems, because we need to be in a constantly changing of scale in the participation/observation and understanding of any particular reality. And we should not imagine that the successive scales need to fit into another as Russian puppets, in a universal harmony coming from the small to the big, and vice-versa, as a series of parts and wholes perfectly organized. We need to get room for the unknown, the conflictive, the problematic, the incoherent, the still not well clarified, etc.
As in any other field, the permanent question that the researcher faces is: what is happening here that I shall retain, and what shall I discard, at least for the moment? It is not so much the divide between general trends and particularities (wholes and parts hierarchically organized, as said before), but a basic question of method.
It is the peculiarity of human experience, the unique characteristics of each human being, that in last analysis feed and justify the so called “social sciences”, an invention of the Western XIX century, but an invention that is our inheritance, that we can not avoid. Whatever the general regularities and invariants we may find, they have, first of all, a local cause, a particular “raison d’être”. What is important is not to departure from the “wrong” assumptions or entities, taken as indisputable; that will compromise all the subsequent reasoning.
Indeed, in the experience of each person, the most crucial aspects are not inscribed on any support or formalized in any way: they are an embodied awareness. And in this embodiment the almost imperceptible, “naked” sensations and perceptions (José Gil) are critically important.
In this aspect, the phenomenological approach is fundamental, and I do not see how it necessarily contradicts the “revolution” that psychoanalysis has operated in the decentralization of human consciousness, at least of the modern Europeans who invented anthropology, too.
Another anthropologist, Philippe Descola, Prof. of the Collège de France (Paris) in his book “Par-delà Nature et Culture” (Paris, Ed. Gallimard, 2005), disagrees with Gibson’s approach and present a renewed way, inspired in the structuralist perspective (he is a disciple of Lévi-Strauss), of looking at human relationship with the non-human world.
His argument is that almost every population in the world distinguishes between conscience and body, an inner part of the self (interiority) and an exterior part of the self (exteriority), and applies it in different ways to all reality. The output of those possible combinations (see table) are four major ontologies: totemism (interiorities and exteriorities are similar in all beings), analogism ((interiorities and exteriorities are different in all beings), animism (similarity at the level of the interiorities, dissimilarity at the level of the physicalities) and finally naturalism (similarity at the level of the physicalities, dissimilarity at the level of the interiorities).
The table above is a translation of that presented by the author at p. 176.
It is impossible to reproduce, here, even a short abstract of the book, which assumes its enormous ambition (p. 167). Indeed, it is a very important piece of work, by one of the more distinguished world anthropologists, but I think that its very basic assumption should be discussed. Can we accept as a “universal” the so called distinction, made by humans, between their “exterior” and their “interior”? … I am not so sure… that “generative axis” of the rest of an overwhelming synthesis of mankind may be very misleading, because it is the axiom over which all the building is made.
In certain aspects, it is interesting to compare Ingold’s and Descola’s approaches, in their coincidences and in their deep disagreement: it is clear that each one of them belongs to a completely different school of thought.
But in one point, among others, they coincide, although by different reasons: the cognitivist approach to the understanding of human action (as presented by internationally very known authors, such as Daniel Denett or António Damásio, among many others), a very interesting approach indeed, but subject to debate (as, in a certain way, reductionist?) in its philosophical basis. Also, both Ingold (who made a critical revision of Leroi-Gourhan, author that he admires) and Descola (who takes his basis from Lévi-Strauss, whose problems with Lacan’s views are well know) apparently discard psychoanalysis as a tool to approach the human complexity.
In that they are in opposition to many, including the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj ˇZiˇzek, an imaginative creator of unexpected connections and prolific writer, deeply influenced by Lacan (and Hegel). But he his indeed fascinating, and in his last book, “The Parallax View” (2006), he also shows that the theory of Damásio in a certain sense fails its target (from page 222 on, in a section called “Emotions lie, or, where Damásio is wrong”).
So, in their extreme differences, all the three writers mentioned – Ingold, Descola, ˇZiˇzek – are located in spaces of thought that are deeply anti-cognitivist. That does not mean that the broad field of cognitive sciences is without interest: that would be totally simplistic and unfair. Simply it belongs to an old scientific tradition, useful but limited in its basic assumptions, that consists in a materialistic desire to dissolve the boundaries between humans and machines, i.e. to reduce the tension between two very old poles of Western thought, body and soul.
Indeed the conscience that we need to try to look at our own “culture” (to use the traditional word) as just one amongst many, is crucial. I am not so sure that we may trust on a (excessively) general idea of “self-awareness” as a characteristic of humans, as a “universal human attribute” (Moore, 1994, p. 33). But even if we could accept that, we still would have many other problems to solve: which forms of that putative “self-awareness” would take shape in distinct time/space situations? Our deep ignorance of that is frightening. But the point is not so much to elaborate a universal encyclopedia of ways of “being in the world”, but, more simply, to discard mythical objectives of our work as archaeologists. This work is part and parcel of a project that is definitively a product of our modern era, and thus an inheritance, too, of centuries of thought. So the first step is to know better ourselves, the inventors of social sciences, in order to try to listen to the others, including their interpretations about us.
Therefore, the starting problem that we need to face is: what are the fundamental characteristics of that “culture”, or ontology, since the Greeks, that make us, Westerns, so special? It is only by this symmetrical attitude of placing ourselves as an anthropological object, as an “exotic” way of thinking and living, that we may aspire to understand the others, be them persons, communities, or whatever.
For instance, why is the “body”, and in particular its image, an obsession of ours? Indeed, this problem underpins the theme of the present paper. I have chose the face, and in particular its image (which we see continuously around us, in so many icons, fixed or in movement), for some reason. It belongs to a long tradition of inquiry and it may be useful to reveal how simplistic may be the “archaeology of personhood” that is so often elaborated by us… we need to understand the permanent and the contingent aspects of Western ontology regarding the body in order to comprehend our modern obsession with the image body and in particular with the face. By the same move, we will probably access why the idea of vision is so important for us, and what is the connection between display, exposition, exhibition, and our philosophical/religious peculiar tradition. The tradition that invented archaeology, the supposed way to make the past present again through a metaphysics of the “material”, a redemption of the “fall”, an overcoming of the loss. As if we could change the irreversibility of time: the regressive ethos of that very “idea” is obvious. In the face as in the land we probably search unconsciously the way to return to the “good mother”, and through “her”, to the lost model.
3. To see and to be seen, the transcendent and the immanent, or: why are we so obsessed with the “materiality”?
Quoting by memory the French thinker Paul Virilio: “The field of vision has always seemed to me comparable to the ground of an archaeological excavation.” And quoting also by memory the painter Paul Klee: “Now, the objects notice me”.
In fact, vision is always a dialogue, because we rarely stop and suspend our perception of the surrounding environment. We are always in motion, submerged into a field of continuously unfolding experiences and with thousands of subtle “inputs” that we can not be aware of. These “inputs” are not bits of information coming to my mind as a processing machine divided from the “body”. The “body” (and “the mind”) are Western (European) inventions that come out from our Greek philosophical tradition (see bibliography – “Qu’est-ce Que Le Corps?).
I look at the objects (including animated and inanimate ones), at the materials and persons around me, as I move in space. And, if I am aware of that series of sights (even if they have some times of contemplation), the difference, the gap between observer and observed, between subject and object, dissolves. The more the distance from the object, the more the illusion of becoming completely neutral, as if we were in the place of an outside Observer (God). In the sense that such sight is conscious that it is the sight of something, and at a given point of space/time, that something imposes itself as an independent projection, as a reflection of our own concentration of attention.
In the book mentioned above (pp. 58-81), there is a particular paper which I consider absolutely important for the goals of the present intervention. Its title is “La Chair est Image” (“Flesh is Image”) and it is written by Michael Schaeffer (École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris). I will try to schematically resume here his argument, which obviously is much richer and clear than this abstract (with some comments by myself) permits.
The question of the body is typically European and Christian. Also, the image par excellence is the image of the body, in particular a body represented as an image. Three main aspects form the basis of our conception of the body: the above mentioned dualism (body/soul), the monotheistic creationism (“man” was created by God, but he/she is a degraded image of Him after the Fall in the paradise), and the idea of Incarnation. Through Christ, God takes a human shape (including a face, a fact unique in religion); Passion is the apex of this Incarnation. The flesh of man, corrupted by sin, has a possibility of redemption through the sacrifice of Christ, who, by Resurrection (glorious body), allows the return to the pure Adam’s original flesh.
So, there is an ambiguity, or duplicity, in the status of the body, right from the beginning of our civilization. In fact, if the body is an obstacle to the salvation (after the primordial sin), it is also the only way (through the body of Christ) that we have to overcome our condition and to recuperate purity. For instance, nudity, a sign of innocence in paradise, has become after the Fall a sign of shame and of lust.
God is beyond any image, any possible representation. He is the model, the prototype, the one who is inaccessible to sight. The image of the human body is in unconformity with that model. But, through the interface between God and “man”, which Christ represents (he is the image of conformity itself) a contact is made possible. By incarnation, the model becomes visible, the body and the image join together in some sort of harmony.
The Christianity is the community, the sum, of the believers as individuals, and it is as individualized bodies that they may converge to the model. In this doctrine and practice – I add – we may see the seeds of modern individualism, the idea of subjects as individualized entities, so typical of our “culture” to the point that we see it as “natural” (i.e., universal), in a characteristically ideological bias.
Largely dominating in European “art” is the image of Christ, an image of conformity, the interface between “man” and God. In him, image and model coalesce, and the flesh is sacramental, not just a shadow as in humans.
From the Renaissance onwards, a fundamental shift occurs within this structure oriented towards the model. The transcendency of the model typical of the Medieval ages becomes progressively replaced by an immanent perspective, i.e., as an interiorized transcendency: bodily appearance starts being the revelation of the inner model. This dissolution of the transcendence of the model, its humanization, opens throughout the last centuries a room where “man” as an image of “perfection” may emerge. The asymmetric, hierarchical relation between model and its “mimesis” (the body-image) beings to dissolve, to become symmetrical. The old distinction enters in a crisis: in a certain way, the difference of levels of reality disappears. On the other hand, ambiguities, or paradoxes inherent to these topics, do not. It is one of the reasons why – I believe – the face in particular, and the body in general, are still for us, today, so fascinating. They convey an enigma. They are paradoxical.
Actually, in spite of that leveling, according to Schaeffer, an ambivalence persists in European tradition vis-à-vis the image: on one hand, it may give access to the model (the image of conformity, the ideal beauty, the glorious body – as expressed exhaustively in contemporary media, connected to aesthetic ideals, phantasms, medical order), and, on the other hand, it is the very impossibility of attaining that situation, because the image installs a distance in relation to the model: it is the image of the Fall, of decadence, of pain and of biological contingency. It is why Christ is the symbol of the Western, European image, because he is the sum of both aspects of the image, simultaneously man and god, suffering body (crucifixion) and glorious body (resurrection). We may say – let me add this comment – that our imagery is still largely dominated, today, by the image of Christ, as we can see in many works of modern art.
So the flesh is simultaneously (another – or, if you want, the same – paradox, contradiction, or oxymoron) the manifestation of spiritual interiority (conformity of the image) and sexual (animal) obscenity (unconformity of the image, deformity, ugliness).
The fact that the idea of femininity – Schaeffer argues – conserves the double aspect of a maternal reality (the nurturing body, the primordial sign of peace and protection) and of a sexual one (the woman as ambiguity, as something not entirely trustable, as a source of fear) comes from the very ambiguity of the “mother” of Christ, in the sense that being a virgin she gave life to a person who was the incarnation of god himself, or his “son” (another figure of ambiguity, of course). It is more than obvious the symbolic character of all these “familiar” polarities, like father, mother, son, etc., studied by psychology, psychoanalysis, etc.
As long as the “humanization of the father” proceeds, a correlative internalization (“intériorisation”) of the models occurs: the consistency of man shall be found in himself, the organic body is from now (Renaissance) on the translation of an inner model. This implies a divinization of “man” and, in last analysis, gives way to the modern, typically romantic, conception of genius: “the artistic interiority conceived as unlimited creative power”, Schaeffer writes (p. 69).
Therefore, the model of the body is not something that comes from God’s creation, but rather it exists in the “idealizing projection of an interior norm” (id., ibid.). Image is the interface of a hidden model (beauty, genotype, etc.) and the (biologically, socially) contingent body. Modern (Western) subject is therefore a consequence of a long, endurable, Christian tradition. “Divine alterity installed itself in the very interiority of man under the form of an idealized image of the self.” (ibid., p. 70). In one of the most lucid texts that I have ever read, the author shows how, with Dürer for instance, “we see the passage from a self-portrait of the artist into a portrait of Christ as the artist’s portrait.” (p. 70). It is evident, in all this matter, the importance of the portrait to trace the development of the underpinning conceptions/perceptions of each epoch, and throughout time: a sort of transformations within the same (ours) overwhelming “matrix”.
So, there is an affiliation, a hierarchic relation, between model and image. But the perfect image (that in conformity with the model) is very important, because it is an intermediate; it is from it that all the other images – crucial for the contemplation and salvation of the believers – come from. This means that the primordial image (the image of Christ) must be in direct relation with him; it must be a true impression of his face: i.e., to be in a relation of similarity with the model, because this last one is the source of energy from where any effort will find inspiration in the way to perfection and redemption: for instance, in the acquisition of (how typically modern a myth!) the body’s beauty. The contemporary version of redemption may be in this kind of cult – my comment – often seen in the sense of a ladder, a series of steps higher and higher, as an ascent to salvation, perfection, imitation of the model. This one is the “spiritualization” of the flesh, playing with the idea of incarnation, the spirit made flesh.
The crucifixion (the supreme sacrifice) is the paroxysm of the pain, of effort, of agony, and it is very interesting (my comment) that we are so much obsessed by the image of agony (the liminal point between life and death, conscience and loss of conscience, individual solitude and loss into something beyond my capacity of control, the chaotic and the “other” in general, the unknown), also (very especially, so to speak) in the erotic sense: the moment of trance, “read” in the face of the other (our lover, for instance). Ascetics, “self- sculpture” (to use the words of Schaeffer – p. 76), search of eternal youth (to be forever young) are but the continuation, in our time, of a long tradition, whose ambiguities are well documented in the very iconography of sacred ecstasy (see Baroque statuary, for instance). This point interests me a lot, because in it coalesces a religious education that in a way has “made me”, and subjected me, but also because of the (illusionary?) capacity to understand all the myths (free love, and in general individual “freedom”) that that oppression developed as false “ways out”.
I mean, this is very important to understand how we main reformulate our discourse within the same ideology, the same ontology. Ideology is like Hydra: it has many heads, and its core is the “false impression” (the felt “deep conviction”) of being in possession of the truth, the “real one”. Indeed, doubt, distance from common beliefs that only self-reflection may provide, is the ultimate luxury: indeed still another version of the salvation, each one of us, in the Christian trend – as individuals –, pretending to be in the right way, whatever it may be.
Turning back to Schaeffer’s text, what we have in our time is the idea of the profane (beautiful, perfect) body as the way to access the “image in conformity”. More specifically, the nude (contrarily to the nudity, which may be purely sexual or opaque) becomes the spiritualization of the body, that is, the locus where all the contradictions dissolve: “sensibility and spirituality, matter and form, temporality and eternity, perception and idea” (p. 78). No surprise, then, that the nude appears as the way par excellence of the staging, or display, of the transcendence (the invisible) under the forms of the visible. Its contemplation promotes the spiritualization of the body. In that sense, the nude is in a situation of opposition to the desired body, to the nudity, to the eroticized object of sight.
This is why modern artists have largely exploited this image of the obscene, pornographic body, going into the self-portrait as a total auto-exhibition, to try to subvert the idealized nude. But, as Schaeffer seems to suggest, this may be a way of pursuing the same goal, the desperate trial to find an interiority at the very surface of the images, of searching the invisible in the very opacity of the exposed surface (or “skin”, if you want). Photography has been, since its discovery, a fantastic machinery revealing this obsession of the search of a “improbable coincidence between reality and the ideal” (p. 79): the rejection of a model, of a hidden reality behind the surface, in order to reach a pretense unity (harmony, overcoming of contradictions or paradoxes) at the very “sur-face” of people and things. Epidermis would be our last phantasm of “interiority”, the process of internalization (“intériorisation”) typical of Europe in the moment of reaching a sort of exhaustion.
Anyway, Schaeffer argues that the modern program of genetics marks the last step of the process, a mythological step indeed. The AND, the “architect of life” (p. 79) is the ultimate version of the model’s thought: an inner model, but also an abstract one, because, as an image, it may be “read” – it the model of the phenotypic body (p. 80). And Schaeffer adds: “The opposition between genotype and phenotype is the contemporary form of the model’s and image’s thought” (…); “The individual organism is nothing but a contingent sub-set of the genetic storage of the species.” (p. 79).
This particular point meets an idea expressed by Tim Ingold in his criticism to current genetics, when he writes that the “(…) organic form is a property not of genes but of developmental organisms”, and that “(…) there is no reading of the genetic code that is not itself part of the process of development (…). It follows that there can be no specification of the characteristics of an organism, no design, that is independent of the context of development.” (See the paper already mentioned, “From complementarity to obviation: on dissolving the boundaries between social and biological anthropology, archaeology and psychology,” Cycles of Contingency. Developmental Systems and Evolution (ed. Oyama, Susan et al), Cambridge/Mass., London, MIT Press, 2001, p. 261). Maybe some of the insights of this author help to answer to some of the perplexities expressed in the final page of Schaeffer’s chapter, when he speaks about the disintegration of a thought based in the ideal of a “primordial” model in the very moment where it seems to impose its sovereignty everywhere.
So the reader starts to see more clearly why this subject interests me so much as a person and as an archeologist. Understanding the tradition to which I belong – its very particular and contingent ontology – in both plans, at least I may be able to avoid some interpretive “ingenuities” vis-à-vis myself and the others (my study’s object). Not to look from outside, replacing the myth of God’s eye; but to open myself to the diversity of possibilities of interpretation, to its infinite complexity. In last analysis, let us say that this is an aesthetic of self-deconstruction, of self-decentering, an ethics of precautionary suspicion.
We live in a world infinitely complex and diversified. But only now, perhaps, of have access, through multiple experiences of contact, to that complexity. Look, for instance, at the faces of people. Their “expression”, and in particular their eyes (the multiple and subtle images that I capture from them) – for a long time considered the “manifestation of the soul” – continuously changes at the most minimal levels.
Faces are the Other(s) in their infinite diversity and extreme ambiguity…but what about the many “selfs” that coexist in myself? The process of internalization goes along with the process of interest by what is alien to us, what is strange and enigmatic.
As Spanish Romantic writer Mariano de Larra has said (quoted by memory): “I am face to face with myself, and this is the major job that I could have.”
Yes, what about our own face, fragmented, unrecognizable? If the 20th century brought many new things, one of the most important was the fall of humanism, the belief in continuous moral and material progress. With the first war, and especially with the second one, the “human” exploded, allowing T. Adorno to ask if poetry would be possible again after the holocaust. We still did not digest that kind of unexplained monstrosity, which occurred in Europe and was perpetrated by one of the most so-called “cultivated nations” of the world. Having invented the idea of “primitive”, of “savage”, to classify the others (anthropology), we discovered that the real savage were ourselves. Something was missed forever.
As Jorge Luís Borges said (quoted by memory): “If you take off all your masks, you will be left with no face at all”. Suddenly, we were face to face with the mystery of ourselves. The works of Sartre, for instance, express well that explosion, that anguish with our identity. Something that has its roots in the 19th century, to quote the very famous thought of Rimbaud about the ambiguity that lies in the core of modern consciousness: “Je est un autre”. Indeed it would be impossible to try to develop here (or even to refer more largely) these very well known ideas. They demand the crossing of practically all fields into a more comprehensive, but also open and “gaped” attitude towards life, experience, explanation.
5. Knowledge, information, sight and illusion
Merleau-Ponty stressed how the visible and invisible are mutually connected: (quoting by memory) “The invisible is the made present as a certain kind of absence.”
In fact, any regime of visibility, of sight, originates a field surrounded by hidden realities. Any candle light originates darkness around it. Every information carries (implies) a secret. In the political economy of knowledge, as long as “information” grows and spreads, a tendency increases in order to keep crucial (much valuable) information in very limited circuits. It would be a deep naiveté to call our society an information society and to think that we may have access to all knowledge and that we can express pertinent opinions about any matter. A certain “flattened” kind of behavior (for instance, in interpersonal relations) is simply a pseudo-democratic screen: it goes along with a deep stratification of sophisticated kinds of creating hidden, closed realities. The modes of distinction changed, moved, but they increased under a “surface” (appearance) of “equal access”.
What is valuable and what is not may change at any moment, and it depends on constant reconfigurations of meaning. Circuits and interests are in permanent fluidity today. What is in fact circulating, flowing, are signs, and their erosion (devaluation) today is extremely fast.
Transparency is part of a politics of distribution closely related to opacity.
In old authoritarian societies, “information” was restricted, object of censorship. In modern “democratic” societies, information flows lake a cascade, in unlimited quantities, and the time and critical distance of the subject to embody and to chose a strategy of navigation in this informative mess is very restricted. The ideology of “freedom”, of free access, is a screen for the unequal distribution of value, for an authentic tyranny of the media. A soft one, easy, pleasant to embody.
The panoptic obsession for vision is misleading, because the more images we have, the more darkness and ambiguity surrounds them. Too much light makes us blind.
6. The ambiguities of objectification: photography, the “death” of art, the relativity of knowledge
To photograph a face is like to kill a living person, turning it into a frozen expression, a dead object – we know that well. It is a common sense idea.
But photo-graphy is the paradigm of modern vision and its paradoxes, whatever the case in question: to turn something into an object of observation is to frozen life.
Artists have understood that a long ago: art today is a sort of trip over of a dead body. What body? The one in which we have invested the nostalgia of the lost model.
On the other hand, photography has allowed us to access new realities formerly ignored; or, better, photography has created the modern illusion that we could fix the flux of like itself, and to store the entire reality of the lived, past and present. Photography is in fact, together with the museum, one of the symptoms of the modern way of life: the loss of aura of the unique, and the fruition as that commodified unique by the mass consumption.
“Reality” is not itself fixed, it is in constant creation by our active engagement in life, conducted by desire, using new tools and devices, dependent on different “episteme”.
We are witnessing an enormous revolution in art in our digital era.
The photographed face is mute, they say.
The so-called “archeological record” (by the way, record, mirror, of what? made by who?!) is mute too, they repeat.
Yes, sure they are, they are opaque, in a certain way; but, let us ask: in whose name, and about what, should these “things” speak? And even if by miracle they would speak, who would guarantee they were saying “the truth”?… i.e., that they would fit to a supposed external reality (the past excavated and exposed, the feelings or personality of the beings photographed and unfolded)? That would be too simple, to return to the loss model with the form of a pedestal where the harmony of a centered world reposes!
Are faces simply denotative? Are they expressing something univocal? Are objects, sites, landscapes denotative? Are they trying to “tell” us something, any univocal, hidden meaning? Obviously not. They are signs, and as signs their meaning is fluid; it is metaphorical, so fortunately it will never reach a point of fixed formulation.
In fact, everything that exists in our lived reality is an action, a contact. A contact between our contingency and “their” (the other’s) contingency. A fluid, engaged, active contact.
We try to fix a sense from that experience, a sense that we may share with others, according to some learned rules and methods. But hopefully we never escape ambiguity.
The sense that we try to reach is not the product of some kind of delirium of individual imagination out of any control, because it is based on commonly discussed ways of approach, and (as long as we can get access to it) on something that is presented to us as openly available information.
But “open available information” is just a conventional sentence. In fact, we balance between agreements and disagreements, between approvals and disapprovals.
Indeed, each one of us desires not to miss the encounter. We are longing for clearness, for precision. We dream of convincing the others as long as ourselves. So we come back again and again to the “evidence”, we look at it, we manipulate it, and we discard interpretations and guesses that are no more plausible. Desire drives us.
That is the movement of knowledge: not an independent process, but the result of a negotiation of individual intuitions occurring in particular communities, in the context of social and power relationships.
We produce results. And we overcome former interpretations. Sometimes, some of them seem nonsense, and make us laugh; others, just make us smile. They became old, too simplistic, too schematic. We do not believe in them anymore. The residue of non discarded material is the truth of our observation; but by contrast to everything that the others have believed before us, we can feel and notice how much we have “progressed” since then.
So, this is not a total relativism, only a mitigated one. Not all interpretations and views are equally valid, or equally based. And suddenly we notice how long is the “cemetery of discarded interpretations”. Looking ahead, keeping searching, establishing new “bridges” and dissolving walls between infertile fields, new landscapes will open to us, some of them probably with a certain splendor.
To learn (i.e. overcoming former confusion, seeing things clearer) may be a pleasure. Repeated gaze, interrogation, in face of a face, in face of a thing – that is the beauty of human experience and wonder.
Within a given environment, to search for traces of human “occupation” and to study them archaeologically in order to recover the “temporality of the landscape” seems to be almost a demiurgic act: to “give life again” to past actions and intentions. Archaeologists with that idea in mind would probably be too ambitious.
But in fact, more modestly, and quoting Tim Ingold [2004 Whitechapel Art Gallery – London – ResCen seminar transcript]: “I think being human means moving about in the world somewhere.
“(…) in fact anthropologists [we could read “archaeologists” – my remark] and artists are doing very similar things. And therefore, we might each learn from what the other is doing.”
And Tim Ingold again continues (ibid.): “What does it mean to see? (…) “(…) the world is continually coming into being and we’re always at the edge of this process.[We are] “actually seeing the emergence of that world in process, in movement.” (…)
“I don’t think that anything begins or ends anywhere. (…) Because we are talking about a life process, we are talking about performances that are going on in the life process.” (…) “There are no fixed beginning or end points.”
I could add: there is no ultimate sense for anything. The face. The past. They are not representations, but ever changing presentations. Research never stops, except for reasons of exhaustion (of practical means and or of lack of people’s motivation).
And quoting T. Ingold again: “(… [We need] to keep the process going by creating the conditions in which growth is possible.” (…).
Stressing the importance of the interrogation over the answer, he says: “(…) there are all sorts of “how is it possible?” questions that drive me, anyway, and that is what I mean by research questions.”
(…) “(…) fundamentally knowledge is about shared experience that comes from immersion in doing the same things, in the same environment.”(…) “I don’t think that anthropology [we could read archaeology – my remark] is like one little segment of academic division of labour. It is a way of being (…).” (See http://www.mdx.ac.uk/rescen/archive/catalyst204.html).
He is right. To consider research a profession like any other else, submitted to conventional timetables, is not to be a researcher. For someone who likes to render the world problematic, ideally there are not times for this and that: research is a passion, a drive into the unknown. Being a collective work, it differs from the artist’s one; within this last one, he/she may operates alone and he/she is more free to do things according to his/her own rhythm.
The face, and the cult of its “beauty” in particular, is part of a modern fetishism, which tries to “materialize” everything, including the most subtle aspects of human life and experience. That fetishism (expressed for instance in pornography) is also the ground where archaeology develops. But in order to understand why this occurs we need to go further into a critical view of our history as we have seen before.
As I mentioned, until very recently archaeology has been a fetishism of objects (be they small artifacts, structures, sites, or huge landscapes) into whom we project our phantasms, our nostalgia of “returning into the objectuality of things”. Of crossing a threshold, entering through a passage into a new state of knowledge.
Now, many archaeologists – together with people from other “disciplines”, such as architecture, anthropology, performing arts and performance studies, land-art, installations, etc. – are making new attempts in order to understand how we human beings relate to other beings and to the environment in which we are submerged.
Faces are indeed a good way of dealing with the “strangeness” of the reality of our daily life, in which “things” appear to us as separated from their contexts of action. “Things” escape from our hands like living fish. They are just signs, in modern capitalist economy.
The same experience of “otherness” or “strangeness” occurs in archaeology. That strangeness in not any “essence of our discipline; it is constitutive of all modern knowledge, and it is one of the reasons why it is also very exciting to live; because we never unveil anything, we just cross through curtains to find others, in a never ending process of experience.
A face is something surprising. Often it looks like an appeal coming from our own past. A particular pattern of face may be connected to a reminiscence of something that happened to us, and that we are now unable to remember.
The visible appeals to the unconscious. The contribution of psychoanalysis is here obviously fundamental.
But it was our own “scientific enquiry”, in its process of objectification, of “creating objects of observation” separated from subjects that observe in a neutral way, which was / is responsible for the conditions of the production of that very “otherness”. This strangeness is magnificently illustrated by many of the paintings by Paul Delvaux, the Belgian surrealist painter. Some of them show a conventional dressed man looking into “life” through old-fashion glasses, in what looks like to be an allusion to the deserted reality frozen by conventional science, to the absurdity that results from the very attempt to isolate “a complete objective reality”. At least, this is my reading of it.
Indeed, in general modernity installed a divided regime: public image for the power (aided by science), privacy for the desire (fed by literature). Schematically, both are faces of the same coin; objectivity and subjectivity, engineering and romance are always playing together and complements each other. We have created the idea of “nature” as independent from “culture”, and for centuries our science have been looking at that invention (“nature”), astonished, trying to understand it and if possible completely dominate its “secrets”.
This is indeed a very old and exotic way of approaching life by Western philosophy and common sense…
To replace a fundamental lack, we have created something very strong indeed. Something that seems to be obsessively observing us through a world made out of images turned into a foolish cascade. And that obsession is certainly fed by our own gaze. The mirror sends back to us our interrogative face, under the aspect of a fragmented monster. We can not face ourselves. That is basically what painting and sculpture have been saying to us these last two centuries. And it is difficult to find the proper words to express this new kind of anguished world populated by the frantic imaginary, by the agony of the images surrounding us in films, in papers, in outdoors, everywhere. Wim Wender’s or David Lynch’s films are good examples of that postmodern vacuum. “No hay banda. Silencio” (“There is no band. Silence”), says one of the characters in Lynch’s “Mulholand Drive”.
Indeed we are longing for something missing – the model.
Probably, behind the attractive face, there is the portrait of the Great Absent: God, the major invention of mankind, our supreme projection.
Deprived of Him, surrounded by small objects of desire, particularly those who live in a modern consumer society experience disenchantment and solitude, together with the fear of aggression from Outsiders.
Archaeology is for us a way, among many others, of trying to fill a double gap created by the death of God (or whatever we call it) and by the fall of the sense of traditional community, as a consequence of modernity.
But – this it he recurrent question – did we, as human beings, ever had an harmonic life? Obviously not, this is a question which is connected with the idea of a primordial paradise, some ideal state of nature before sin and fall. Actually what we lack is the loss of a myth. Totality, fulfillment, is our phantasm. But this is also in connection of a libidinal economy, and with the progressive globalization of market and liberal system, in a word: with the spread of modern capitalism.
We lack a collective project. Our project is individual: to capitalize, to enlarge our belongings in money, prestige, power, capacity of seduction of others, whatever. The ultimate value is money, an abstract and fluid thing, connected to individual improvement. M. Weber showed very clearly how this “freedom to expand fortune”, so intimately tied to capitalist entrepreneurship, is also in connection with protestant Puritanism.
And as long as a society of mass consumption and entertainment emerges, as a result of industrialization, many search in the past a refuge for their own perplexity: the implosion of “the meaning”, the Great Other, in the neo-liberal society.
In old monarchies, the king represented god, and his image (his portrait) showed his unquestionable status, as a symbol of power, and stability of the order of the universe. The same with the nobles.
With the emergence of the bourgeois world, the concept of citizenship and the individual living in growing cities, the old order became unstable.
Anonymous and lost in a crowd, the individual, promoted not by blood (inherited status) but by merit (acquired by work and personal value), needed new modes of distinction. News ways of representation came from this regime of power desire, i.e., from the loss of a fixed universal meaning existing forever.
Photography was one of the main devices of that new discursive order.
Things are everywhere on display to be seen, to be bought and sold. Faces to observe and to be observed.
Subjects producing themselves for an open market or vivid experiences. Images, images, images forever; a cascade of signs trying to impose themselves as temporary icons. This is very tiring, but one of the characteristics of capitalism is its extraordinary capacity to absorb, to include in its very expansion and reinforcement any margin, any criticism, any discordance.
Modern personal computer brings a world home. With it, we create new images, new signs, we multiply messages, we increase noise, superimposition, discard.
We have internalized our condition of individual productive machines: innovative, desiring, all the time on the move, even when seated.
As the one who is preparing this presentation, this text.
Baudrillard (1994, pp. 131-132): “(…) everything turned out to be operational. Every category, instead of being a category of action, became a category of operation. Therefore, everything drives into this sort of facticity.” (…)
“It is true that the human face, alive, contains a sort of alterity, i.e., a contradiction in itself; there is a kind of semiological action even at the level of the traces, which aesthetic surgery partially sponges out.” (…)
It’s always the same thing with every kind of aesthetic surgery, be it done in the nature, in green spaces, etc – it consists in effacing the negative traces in order for us to be left only with the ideal model. Everywhere, indeed, this modelization of the will, of the body, of sex, occurs.”
We could add: archeologists are a kind of aesthetic surgeons of the land, trying to imprint the landscape with the ideal traces of a perfect past (= clean, clearly visible, nice to look at, expressive, meaningful present).
In school, they have taught us that the concept to be defined should not be included in the definition. But, to the contrary: archaeology, for instance, is the study of the archaeological reality.
The archaeological reality is the universe of things that we considerer archaeological.
To be or not to be included in that reality depends on the epoch of the archaeologist, on his/her approach, i.e., on his/her way of looking at reality, on the paradigm that shapes his/her way of looking.
Each “discipline” is the product of an historical situation.
The discipline that the disciplinary system tried to impose to the reality consisted in dividing that reality into pieces, each one being the object of a particular “discipline”.
But a “discipline” (like archaeology, or architecture, or anthropology, etc.) has more to do with a particular tradition, a particular way of looking at/living in the world, a genealogy of questions and tasks, methods, techniques, ways of approach, themes, controversies, and authors.
It is a convention as any other else. It has only fitted a relatively stabilized reality, as long as this reality existed.
Today knowledge is fluid, like finance: it is in a continuous flow, it avoids to be fixed or framed in permanent rules and themes, and it is seeking not only for exchanges between “fields” (interdisciplinary work) but for new fields where to expand (transdisciplinary work, the globalization of thought).
To establish unexpected connections between topics of former different fields, to use imagination, became the prime mover of the so-called “creative people”. To be a “creative person” (in science, art, or… finance) is potentially the most valuable feature of the modern individualistic and productive society. Imagination, connection, production of the unexpected – that is what opens new fields for the commodification process (global capitalism). Imagination is money. Going directly to new targets saves energies and potentializes more power and prestige.
Garry Winogrand (quoted by Sontag – see bibliography) said: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” We could say: “We archaeologists we excavate to find out what things will look like excavated.”
Or: “ We do archaeological survey in order to find out what things will look like when observed, recovered, or recorded.”
We need to accept a huge gap, not to say an abyss, between our “philosophical questions” and our “daily life” as archaeologists. Philosophy is too sublime, too abstract, too much separated from experience; daily “recovery” of information is not so much exciting as we often pretend (to convince ourselves and our publics/sponsors)…
To think, to search, is a form of action. In action we are always previewing what comes next; action is in itself a permanent anticipation; but it is an anticipation submerged in the contingency of the events.
To “search for something” is already to find it, because we never conceive “a priori” a precise object of research. We just go ahead, moved by desire, in order to keep acting. And if we find something, we tend to say: look, it was precisely this that I was searching for.
And then we review all the film of life in order to trace in the past the first signals of the interest for (of) the thing just discovered.
All meaning is, in a certain sense, tautological. To a certain point, we move in circles, larger and larger ones. Or, if you prefer, in a spiral. We obviously never come back to the same place. Each one of us patiently builds he/she’s own capsule made out with materials of the environment, including social environment. But this is a very typically Western way of acting…
Every year, in the end of an excavation season in the prehistoric site of Castanheiro do Vento (NE of Portugal), our research team tries to protect large exposed areas from weathering. For that, we need to use long plastic bands offered to us. We do not have means for a better protection. So, the last days, when the students are there no more, the directors of excavation perform these and many other practical activities. Sometimes we ask ourselves, looking at the colorful aspect of the site: Is this a Christo’s modern installation in Castanheiro do Vento? It could be!
But, no: obviously, and unfortunately, it is ours.
We are just covering the questions (the problematic face of the site) with those colorful plastics in order to protect them for future solving, and to prepare ourselves for a peaceful winter.
So, as you see, in practice there are no boundaries. When we need to solve problems, we are immersed in life, we are creative actors. All the excavation may be seen as a performance, even in the modern “artistic” sense.
This is why performance artists are welcome to the site. We must be creative together to survive as people who are more concerned to experience new things than to accumulate older ones. To protect “archaeological values”, we need to dissolve barriers. Getting a new face to the discipline, to use an easy metaphor…
We are longing for coming back to a sort of regressive state of “peace”, before the separation from the Great Other. In that state, questions and answers would be imbricated, dissolved into a sole thing.
So, I stress this point – all action (and all thought) tends to be tautological: in some way it arrives always at the point of departure: a certain time later, with a certain experience accumulated. “Toute connaissance est une reconnaissance”. On another hand, the opposite is also true: what is in fact a point of departure, in the fluidity of things? Past, present and future intersects at every point.
The archaeologist, as the photographer, is like the criminal: they always turn back to the place where the crime was committed.
To live is to be engaged in some sort of compulsory form of action. People needs to be involved in tasks in order to survive by making sense of themselves within a given environment. They trace lines in a landscape, produce footprints in the sand and the snow. Most of them will fade in an instant; some may be conserved for the thousands of years to come.
Making sense (of individual and of communal action) is our major goal.
As Francis Bacon (who tried many sorts of tasks and jobs before becoming a painter) said: “The important point is always to be able to do something. If you do something in your life that gives it a meaning, the way that drives you there, the field in which you express yourself are of minor importance. As it is so rare to come up to the point of giving life a meaning, and it is so good to reach that!”
We archaeologists we want to unveil the face of reality, as the voyeur that exists in every one of us wants to find the absolutely surprising face, to unveil the sublime unknown, to record it, to photograph it.
We want to strip the landscape from its modern features. We need to ecograph the soil, to see what is underneath, to work like surgeons in order to extract meaning from its apparent indifference and muteness.
And we justify our activity saying that we want to give landscape its temporality, that we want to understand the past. Yes, but… probably, moreover, and nostalgically, we want to recover the atemporality, the eternity of the landscape.
The landscape of archaeology has no essence: it is the landscape of the modern individual, surrounded by all sounds and visions of his/her own solitude.
Attached to the ground, concentrating our attention on it, paradoxically we dream about levitation, about “dancing in the sky with diamonds…” continuously trying to find the undiscovered face, the image of self recognizance and fulfillment…the sublime (though impossible) trans-figuration.
The regime of thought that interrogates the face, considered as the interface between the body (the visible) and the soul (the invisible), is the same that interrogates the soil, considered as the interface between the present (the visible) and the past (the invisible).
Psychology and archaeology depend on the same metaphysics: to unfold, to expose the invisible that is hidden by the visible, that lies underneath it.
But the encounter quickly dismisses such a simple scheme.
A face is a fluid appearance, in the sense that it changes continuously as an image, and that image is by vocation ambiguous: there is no single subject behind it.
Each one of us is in fact “many”. Or, better, the “self” is a fragmented, fluid reality in a process of liquid transformation. So, when I say “me”, who is speaking in my name? Identity is a fiction that gives the self a sense of stability which is certainly needed for mental health and individual survival.
The work of memory is one of the “machines of identity”, a machine that is constantly at work, trying to make sense a posteriori of each individual life. The mythic nature of that sense is specially notorious in biography.
Autobiography, in particular, implies always a narcissistic motivation. The reflexive subject “reviews” his/her own past in order to find coherence in a lifetime, in order to find and expose the reasons why he may call himself or herself “him” or “her”. The same applies to the past.
The past is in a way a particular sort of fiction built from pieces of collective memory and public documentation. In that immense archive of history, the so-called archaeological reality plays an important role, because it seems to substantiate by a material, solid basis, conclusions about what happened before us.
But every self-reflexive archaeologist knows that there is nothing more ambiguous then archaeological reality itself. That reality – as it keeps recorded and/or exposed for others to observe – is the result of an encounter of a certain research approach with a certain portion of the terrain, of the territory. The contingency of that encounter and its products is obvious. But here again the community and the heritage enterprise (industry – very much connected to processes of local identification and to products for tourism management) demands the archaeologist a story, an historical discourse that may be make to function as an account of the temporality of that particular landscape, monument, or piece. And again, like in biography, the writer, or specialist, needs to tell a coherent story, a narrative of how things were in the past, and how they suffered a series of transformations until become the things of the present. This narrative of continuity is the trick of history – to make sense of a collective memory. Archaeologists know that if they do not tell this, here and now, and as much complete as possible, they will not be funded for the suite of their research, and they will be considered unproductive, spending public money in an activity which is asked to produce stories and monuments for the public, for children, for leisure times, something that fills all gaps.
So the gap that the subject feels – when, for instance, he/she looks at the mirror – between his/her reflected image and his/her own subjective image of the “self”, is homological to the gap that the archaeologist meets when he needs to tell the result of his/her research to non- specialists, and even sometimes to archaeologists specialized in a different matter. Almost like children, they ask all the important questions; but also like children – especially in the case of the public – they will not accept doubts or alternative versions. They want a quite precise answer, they want to be mythically transported back to the past (as imagined by them). They want to confirm their feelings of belonging to a community (local or global) whose history makes sense. A domesticated sense. In 2005, I have published a book, called (translating to English) “Show-Cases Too Well-Lighted. Essais on Archaeology”, which cover displays a show-case having just a question mark inside.
Because modern individual feels alone and disconnected from community as an individual consumer in an abstract and generalized market, he/her critically needs some narrative that ties him/her to a collective meaning.
The past – and the heritage in general – is the product that the consumer is searching for in the global modern hypermarket to fill his/her basket with culture, with products of leisure and entertainment that may give him/her a sense of belonging to something located beyond mere physical survival.
Those are also products of social distinction, the proof that the individual has overcome the status of mere comfort and common-sense happiness, to look far ahead, i.e., to mimic the usefulness of the leisure class reading books, participating in debates, listening to “classic” music, in short, reaching the level of a full right’s citizen integrated in a community of educated persons, separated from the regime of the poor, those concerned with mere survival.
To decipher faces and their expression, and to decipher objects and their history, opens the way to a body of specialists, to professions concerned with the invisible behind the visible.
Psychologists – not to mention psychiatrists and psychoanalysts – decipher the bodies, and the faces in particular, to “cure” deviations and to help people to integrate into the system through the proper behavior.
Archaeologists decipher the land, ideally advising entrepreneurs and politicians about where to build and where to make survey/excavation, in order to preserve “remains of the past”, i.e., symptoms of history that reinforce collective cohesion, mental health of citizens integrated into a meaningful world, where culture and entertainment are fundamental for the reproduction of the social order.
Visiting and buying products available in this market – which covers every aspect of reality – citizens reinforce that peaceful acceptance of shared values and ideologies.
To sum it up, psychology and archaeology as public activities (as professions) act as mechanisms for feeling gaps and correct disruptions both at the individual level and at the public space level, in order to provide accepted explanations and shared values.
Only at a very specialized level do psychologists, archaeologists, and other social scientists raise difficult, disturbing questions, questions which are also welcome because they meet a specialized fraction of the market itself. The fraction that seeks to look beyond common/pop culture, popular books, self-help books, etc., etc.
Unexpected connections and fresh insights are the bread and butter of this small fraction of the inclusive market.
In this context, which is ultimately my project?
To dissolve the boundaries between argumentative (conceptual, logically organized) thought and aesthetic thought (poetry), between anthropology (and archaeology, and architecture) and art.
To express myself in a unique way with a variety of modulations, creating synergies between separated fields and between different people, at a transdisciplinary level.
Helping students to understand that in order to get involved in real projects of knowledge research we need to create new forms of practice within the traditional institutions we have, through active learning, horizontal practice of a continuous share of information and experience, where the status of each member does not so much depend on formal post or age, but of individual contribution to collective effort.
In archaeology, that effort is enormous, so gigantesque is the task of dialoguing with many people concerned with environment planning in order to negotiate zones/times to make long run archaeological interventions possible. This position frontally denies a mere accommodation to the status quo. Discussing “theory” means to prepare to struggle for a higher status in the symbolic power of archaeology, which is vital for the enlargement of its field of activity in real, “practical life”.
We are not confined to an abstract and contradictory subject matter as “material culture”, or whatever. We extend our interest to every field of knowledge/activity (exploring new paths and connections), and to every question at stake in order to amplify our conditions for public intervention.
In Portugal, at least, it is possible to do it in some way, and that task is urgent. Otherwise we fail. But, for our effort to be successful, it needs the conjugation of capacities of different teams from different countries; in turn, we are able to do our best to be useful to others: that is at least ideally the very heart of science, art, or any knowledge, and that is the spirit of the moment: to make things, persons, thoughts, circulate. Hopefully, there will be always detached personalities and well supported projects to inspire us all.
People live in the world of evidence, of natural things. The majority of the archaeologists is not an exception – they apply, and reproduce, unconsciously, what they have been taught to do.
However “nothing is written”; nothing is natural, in the sense that nothing is definitive or is as it must be.
The interesting point about this world is the fact that it is in constant mutation. Things that today seem natural, spontaneous, obvious, will give place in the future to new worlds. Each one of these will be lived (and felt, and thought) by common people similarly with total conviction.
People who never open their entrance door to the doubt are, in a certain way, already dead; taking refuge in certitude, they block at the same time their creativity.
When the objectification of the human body (face included) was made by medical sciences, that process divided it between a surface, defined by the epidermis (visible symptoms of some “inner” problem or disease) and an interior, an inside matter made out of organs, functioning or disfunctioning in an unknown way. It installed a dichotomy between appearance (surface, form, area of the sight) and reality (in this case, the very systems of the body as a lived matter) (depth, content, area of opacity).
Anatomy, and in recent times technical systems of observation like echography, helped to explore the enigma of the human body, making each one of us an element to be “included” under the modern hygienic law of medical scrutiny and surveillance, and at the same time compelling us to a constant self surveillance (we are also that alien, the body, that needs to be scrutinized regularly).
We are in a certain way compelled to feel guilty of our own diseases, because, if the symptoms are detected at a precocious moment, we may eventually stop the degradation process or even be cured; this corresponds to interiorize, to make medical order subjective. The modern subject is the “locus” of responsibility – having embodied rules of all kinds, he is the knot of a net of surveillance and objectification never seen in history before.
No surprise, then, that many are kept outside that extremely demanding system: it is a sort of “Darwinist machine” of exclusion; no surprise, too, that depression and anxiety are the very companions of us, those inside the system and keeping it alive everyday by our continuous action.
Probably no former regime of history was like this; in a certain way, we have gone far ahead of many fiction novels about “the future” and its totalitarian, oppressive system/way of life. Indeed “oppression” in not coming from outside, it is ideologically implanted in individuals, in their habitus, in their beliefs, in their very imagination of individual freedom. It is a process of complete overlapping between intimacy and order.
The body exposed to medicine, to scientific vision and scrutiny, is a naked body, a body that has temporality lost its intimacy. Obviously, nakedness may be a sort of cloth, and intimacy has more to do with sentiment then with physical appearance. But I do not have occasion to develop this here.
Especially after a hospital surgery we may feel that our body is an alien, exposed to the look of others, even students, who observe us (?) as a matter of knowledge, as a case study to illustrate their manuals. Nakedness, intimacy, and eroticism suffered a deep transformation in modern times, in many (but all inter connected) ways. As I said, it is impossible to develop all those themes in this context.
The same exhibition of self, this time transformed into a mind, is operated by psychiatry (the branch of medicine concerned with what is beyond materialized body, the mind), psychology, psychoanalysis.
Each one needs to decide by himself/herself if, in addition, he/she has or not a metaphysical third reality, called the soul, and if this one will survive as promised to individual death, in a sort or non-place called heaven. That is the territory of belief, the black-hole that escapes objectification. It is in fact its complement. People need to believe that they are free to choose their most intimate feelings and options, in order that they “feel free” at the very moment where the reproduction of the ideology occurs. People are constantly nurturing their own alienation as their most sacred individual tabernacle.
Turning back to the “physical”, “material” body, the result of the medical identification process, we all know that between surface and organs contained by the skin there are holes, entrances, passages between inside and outside, some of them connected with the senses and with the eroticized body in particular.
Eroticism is, in a certain way, the popular culture (and religion…) of modern, secular times, the democracy of pleasure for all; we do not need to spend much time and effort to acquire the means of production of that promised pleasure, as long as we have a healthy body/mind (being “normal”).
The problem is that “healthy” eroticism, the one publicly recommended (itself in fact the upper surface of an iceberg, as we all know from our own experience, and through modern art and performance, for instance) implies a certain kind of mind, not only “free from prejudices” but, moreover, available to that kind of experience.
Parallel to romantic love (the deep motivation for projecting a couple life, trying to keep living with another person) modernity invented a fantastic paraphernalia of erotic attractions, entertainments, and stimulations having ultimately as a goal the “sexual fulfillment” of the individual (considered by some psycho-sciences as almost an obligation, or pre-condition, for a healthy mind).
That environment is fed continuously by the market. Normally it includes, in its complex package, a “box” for the individual pleasure, taken as obligation and right, and doctors advice each individual of the norms (individually adapted) to reach that fulfillment.
In fact, individualization goes along with, and complements, the process of universalization of the modern body. A physical disease obeys to universal rules (biology, natural law); instead, a psychological disease, although following a general nomenclature, is under the scope of individual peculiar combinatory of universal modules, because it is the product of a biography, an individual experience, i.e., as a mode of “culture” as a lived, particular, specific embodiment of the rules defining (defined for) the human being.
By “discovering” deep substratum beneath the conscious, in a certain way psychoanalysis disturbed, but ultimately reinforced, the modern medical system, in the sense that it provided ways to cure the secular soul (something more complex then just the mind) by more intimate means that those of the psychologist or of the psychiatrist. It corresponds to the subjective, romantic, anti-Jacobin face of modernity, the other side of its coin. Freeing desire (libido) from its “hidden” former places, psychoanalysis served also to objectify the complexities of the human soul. It mainly allowed a shared experience between analyst and analyzed (transfer) which was eradicated from objective, scientific medicine and psychology. In that aspect, psychoanalysis may be very important and subversive. Obviously, there are as many versions as psychoanalysis as its own fracticioners; thus, this is an especially sensitive matter.
The separation between object (ill, suffering person) and subject (the analyst) is more complex, because it involves long run interaction of two “souls”, the deep “introduction” of the mind of the observer into the mind of the observed (and vice-versa). It may be a sort of erotic experience, socially approved and encouraged, in the sense that it explicitly may involve shared emotions. Obviously, in Portugal at least, this “treatment” is very much dependent on the economic capacity of the analyzed. (1)
The very extension of reason and modern hygienics forced the emergence of a multitude of escapes, going from that psycho-interactive action to the reification and sacralization of sex and its ecstasy (orgasm), from eroticism to romantic love. It created the idea of deviance, of perversion – to be more or less far from the rule, from the “doxa” of the healthy individual. The healthy individual is the model: the one who gets a “perfect equilibrium” (?) between body and soul, being in preference the element of a married heterosexual couple. Certainly, we know that things are changing very fast in these aspects. But that one was the ideology through which people of my generation were formatted.
In fact, all those principles, taken at the individual level (the individual, another invention of modernity, is the owner of his/her own option in terms of “way of life”, as a right and as an obligation) created infinite modes of specificity.
The specificity of each one is just the result of a particular combinatory of universal modules, or is there something – some residue – that remains outside analysis? Objectively, advertisement and in general the marked machinery is always fabricating new subjectivities in order to create new needs and the corresponding commodities to meet them. As consumers and also as consumed (not only by the sight of orders, as social actors, but by a variety of situations, including selling our labor force), we are permanently in search of fulfillment, inside an eroticized environment where daily powers are in constant negotiation in every niche of human action. From home to work, and from them both to public space.
Certainly this helps us strategically to understand the so-called “past societies”, in the sense that conceptually they are as present as ourselves: a construction of our own modern “mind”. As long as archaeology discovered to be itself an invention of modernity, it is included, as everything else, in the general “episteme” of ours. Therefore, in order to be thought, archaeology needs itself to be objectified from outside as a “field of study” as any other else. That ideally implies for the observer (the reflexive archaeologist) a meta-position and the establishment of connections to all other fields, in every direction. That implies a politics. Every field of activity does it, producing continuously an enormous amount of discourses of legitimization of that very field. Why should archaeology be an exception, confined to a mere technology of “recovering the past”?
Obscene and non-obscene, erotic and non-erotic, pornographic and non-pornographic are pairs of concepts which are included in the same liquidity of all concepts and dichotomies today. For something to be considered as obscene/pornographic/erotic, or not, is very relative; it depends on the attitude of the observer, and on moral considerations which are considered as each one (his/her) own field of individual decision.
Semiologically, it is at the point of reception (of interpretation by each one of us) that something acquires its connotation: reality presents itself with a phantasmatic “neutrality” in a certain way. A commodity is a commodity as any other else, as soon as there are producers and consumers – a market – for it. It is translatable into money, the ultimate value (in financial but also in “metaphysical” terms).
This coalescence of extremes is not new, because in fact we know very well that in traditional religious trances orgies and all kinds of excesses were produced: that was – and still is – at the very core of traditional and popular religious experience. So, even a sophisticated piece as the sculpture representing the religious ecstasy of Santa Teresa by the baroque Italian artist Bernini may be considered erotic or even pornographic, depending on the way we look at it. In fact, it has been retaken by modern “artists” in order to produce audacious pieces of work. But this should not mistake us: pornography, photography, archaeology – as for instance literature as a separate field – are all productions of the modernity, mainly of the XIX century onwards. And pornography – sex industry in general – is today one of the greatest powers in the world, together with war industry, drugs, construction works, football, etc. In these industries the hard face of capitalism makes itself clear, in its ferocious exploitation of people and its absolute indifference to “human feelings”.
What is the point here at stake? What I want to stress is a very simple idea. The body’s face and the soils’ face, and the ways we look at them, are not simply metaphors of each other, i.e., superficial bi-univocal analogies.
Human’s face – symbolized in the fashion model, and traditionally in “women” – and soil’s surface are in fact homologous, in the sense that they are experienced as objectual signs (“material culture”) of an inner important meaning (“non material culture”, or, if we want, “culture” in general) that they occult and reveal at the same time. In the case of the face, it is the identity, the personality of the person, and its biography inscribed in the visual discourse of a face in movement.
Or, we know that that “hidden meaning”, as a circumscribed entity, is a myth, an idealized label that we put on other’s face.
In a similar way, the idea of “extracting meaning” about a supposed past going underneath the surface of the soil, from the visible superficial remains, is also a chimera, a fantasy. In fact we uncover relatively small portions of features which not only are deceivingly too scarce to answer the questions we normally ask in advance, but in general raise new questions.
So the process is not to unveil the past, as to undress a person is not to unveil her/him, but just to change the state of the visible reality we call “material”. Where we had a surface, we have now holes or exposed surfaces underneath – we have just multiplied the secret of things; where we had a face, we have now a multiplicity of faces, a vanishing face in all its secrecy, in all its movement to another state, to another appearance.
To sum it up, in archaeology as in daily life, or in a psychological study, if we are lucid, we are face-to-face to the mystery of the world. We accumulate observations, notes, records. We elaborate discourses, we connect formerly non connected ideas. We propose explanations.
And after all this we should not feel nostalgic for the fact that we do not find a definitive truth. Who wants a definitive truth? Is is as much useless as last days papers, to remember an old song of the Rolling Stones. We want to act together in the present. To find people, not only faces, not only images; to make things in the soil, not just to look at it or to experience it walking, talking, or whatever. “Going into the deep of thinks” means just be active, feel happy, raise questions, propose guesses, elaborate interpretations, discard views, in a word – to dialogue each other inside a real and active, engaged world of relationships. (2)
Porto, October 2006 – February 2007
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ˇZiˇzek, Slavoj (2006 – British Ed. 1994). As Metástases do Gozo. Seis Ensaios sobre a Mulher e a Causalidade, Lisboa, Relógio d’Água.
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* During the preparation of this work, Prof. Tim Ingold (University of Aberdeen) has sent (2006) to me his opinion on the theme that I chose: “Focusing on the face is important. (…) “What is so special about it is that (without mirrors) it is a part of the body that we cannot see, so we know we have one only because it is confirmed in the sight of others. Instead, in the space where your face ought to be (and you know it is there because you can feel it), there is the whole world. I think this point is central to certain shamanic/animic cosmologies: for example the round face-masks of the Alaskan Yup’ik (worn in dances where spirits enter the community) are equated with the round cosmos, conceived as a huge eye which is watching its inhabitants. I was particularly struck by John Hull’s book, ‘On sight and Insight’ (1997), on the experience of going blind. He says somewhere that he felt as if his head was in a sack, when he could no longer see people responding, in their eyes, to the presence of his face. It was as though he did not have one. It is remarkable, however, how little anthropologists have written about the face and facial gestures. However one point that came out of our recent research on the sociality of walking is that ‘face-to-face interaction’ may not be the intimate form of social relationship that it is generally held to be. In fact it is rather confrontational, and people often feel threatened if looked at directly eye to eye. Walkers reported a much greater sense of companionship if walking side by side, in the same direction. You would not, then, see your companion’s face, but you would share with him/her the same view or vista ahead. By contrast, two people standing or sitting face-to-face see quite different views, so that their experience is not shared to the same extent.”
(1) The invoice (document of the amount paid) of a psychiatric treatment is useful for getting some refund from the public health system; but similar documents given to the patient by a psychologist or a psychiatrist are not…
(2) Some artists/artistic works interesting for this paper (used in an initial, non publishable, power point format – some thoughts included in the text were written directly in the slides, playing with the images, and at the same time as if the texts would be also images themselves) – among many, many others:
Albuquerque Mendes – paintings
Andrew Valko – “Admission”
Antony Gormley – “Angel of the North”
Bettina Rheims and Serge Bramly – “INRI” (album of photos)
Craig Morey – photos
Francis Bacon – several self-portraits; crucifixion; Pope Innocent X
Jean Paul Delvaux – “The Phases of the Moon I”; “The awaking of the forest”
J. Wilcox – photos
John William Waterhouse – Narcissus
Jorge Molder (Portuguese photographer) – “Immediate unfamiliarity”
Lawick Muller – “Vedova”
Luis Duva – “Triptych”
Maggie Taylor – “Twilight Swim”
Man Ray – “Tears”
Raphael – Transfiguration of Jesus
R. Magritte – several paintings
Richard Long – several works
Roni Horn – “You Are the Weather”
Salvador Dali – Crucifixion; Galatea of Spheres
Sam Taylor – photos
Tony Oursler – “Blue” and other works
Vanessa Pey – photos
I want to thank Amanda Wintcher for having read this paper before publication.
(3) The long list presented here is composed of books/texts that were consulted in the course of the preparation of the present paper, a simple draft of a more “ambitious” work in progress. Many needed to be bought abroad, in a process of search which has taken years; in fact, very few useful things are translated in due time into Portuguese, except in Brazil.
I think they may be useful references to the reader and certainly most of them will be – I hope – good guides for myself in the next future to develop ideas that are merely suggested here. Note the fact that many of the authors used are mutually incompatible, at least according to their own statements; that is precisely the more interesting for me, because as long as I grow up (…) I notice how contingent is the certitude of the very best. Each one needs to search the “good way” by him/herself, articulating permanently an attitude of student (taking advices and being open to every criticisms) and an attitude of absolute sovereignty. In the “moment of the truth” each of us is completely alone – there are no masters. In this sort of “desert”, where each one needs to trace his/her own route, Portuguese scholars have the incredible advantage of reading and speaking several languages, in the very spirit of Europe with its characteristic diversity. To speak another language is in a certain way to translate oneself into a different person; that means to get a distanciated look (a “parallax view”?…) at everything that used to be our familiar “landscape”.