|I'd like to use
this space to write a few words about the background research involved in making our show at Isabella Bortolozzi gallery in 2006, and to explain what I call the mechanics of the piece: how it was supposed to function in that particular context. Since the piece was about the relation of the supporting texts that describe artworks to the artworks themselves - in other words, how much meaning could be applied to the work from the outside, the idea of a reference established by a supporting text, or the text's role in a claim to legitimate discourse - we withheld any information outside of the gallery press release, which we considered to be an important part of the work. At some point, however, a piece as introverted as this installation might deserve some explanation, and although it has often been said that our art is meant to confound, I appreciate in a very sincere way the research material that inspired the work; so I hope to write about it here in a way which will be both informative and shed light on how we began to conceive of the work.
It was less a technique or theory than the sensibility of a group of people that inspired our work. This sensibility, at once critical and irreverent, was found in papers associated with a linguistic theory called generative semantics. Generative semantics is almost always talked about in the past tense, sometimes even nostalgically, because many consider it to be a failed research program, obsolete or unemployable in present-day linguistic studies. I would say generative semantics hasn't been so much discredited as absorbed into a field that has been completely rearranged or restructured, partly because of its own impact on that field.
At the time of generative semantics' birth, a group of linguists headed by Noam Chomsky had some years earlier introduced a paradigm shift in linguistics with their theory known as Cartesian transformational grammar. The consequences of the introduction of this theory cannot be underestimated; it was violent by academic standards, suddenly sidelining the research of the leading names in linguistics. Transformational grammar was, in terms of its significance, the grand unified theory of linguistics. I wish I could get into the theory of transformational grammar (and generative semantics) but in the interest of space and clarity it's enough to know that at that time it was very difficult to speak about linguistics at all without reference to Chomsky.
The people who proposed the generative semantics model saw it as an improvement to transformational grammar; they were one-time disciples turned dissidents. One can safely say that the proponents of generative semantics were very much aware of their role as separatists, or at least of their oppositional position to the dominant mainstream of Chomsky's theory, a role which jibed well with the time in which they developed their ideas, The Sixties. As an oppositional theory it took all the trappings of the counterculture of the period, embracing and employing a timely rhetoric, style and strategy that delighted in the madcap, especially sex, drugs, the Rolling Stones, protesting the war in Vietnam, scatology, and profanity. They circulated their ideas in underground papers, mimeographed them and passed them around. Many of these are collected in a book called Studies Out in Left Field: Defamatory Essays Presented to James McCawley (2) on his 33rd or 34th Birthday. The book has a Chinese restaurant menu on the cover (3), I think because one of the editors, Arnold Zwicky, wrote papers about the English grammar found in Chinese restaurants. A quote from the preface:
The number 33 has the prime factors of 3 and 11. The first is clebrated as a number of special import: it stands for tagmemic tri-modality, for troilism, for the Trinity, for the major components of a transformational grammar, for the division of an insects body, for the grammatical persons, for the parts of Gaul as a whole, for the dimensions of the Smith-Trager representation of English vowels, for the menage à trois, for the national colors of most countries, for the Fates and the judges of the underworld, for the possible phonemic vowel heights, and for the number of teaspoons in a tablespoon or feet in a yard. The number 11 is a very second-rate number: it is sort of lucky, and it has football associations. The deep significance of 11 is that it is written with two identical strokes, i.e., that it is an icon of the number 2, and that is a mystic number - Cartesian dualism, the yin and yang, the yoni and lingam, Jakobsonian binarism, North vs. South, left and right, binary coding, Red vs. White, the division of a spider's body, VSO or SOV, Communism vs. Capitalism, hermaphroditism, syllables or morae, to cite only a sprinkling of its manifestations.
I've picked out one of the shorter papers collected in the book to use as an example (1). For the most part, the papers are written under pseudonyms; this one is written by Yuck Foo of the South Hanoi Institute of Technology, or S.H.I.T. The paper is a disproof of an earlier paper through the illustration of an exceptional case in English: Shove X up Y's Ass. The claim being disputed is by James McCawley: there is no verb that can only be used with nouns that can be substituted for by the pronoun "she" (as opposed to "he" or it"). The verb "to mail", for example, can be thought of as being limited to subjects that are either something or someone that is sentient enough to put something in the post, but one can not say the verb's subject is limited exclusively to any one of the pronouns "he", "she" or "it". Yuck Foo gives us as counter-examples, among others, "Shove your foreign policy up your ass, you Yankee imperialist.", and "Nixon, you imperialist butcher, shove your brainless daughter up your ass". The first of these is grammatically correct; the second isn't - a fact which (to paraphrase Foo) hinges on the fact that "foreign policy" would prenominalize as "it", and "your brainless daughter" would prenominalize as "she". So contrary to McCawley's claim, the object in the example of "Shove X up Y's ass" is restricted by the pronoun one can substitute for it. Case closed.
I had the pleasure of meeting some of the people involved with generative semantics and who had contributed papers for Studies Out in Left Field. One immediately got the impression that although the papers seem like they were written in jest, these were brilliant people who were involved in something which had a much greater potential than just jokes. Their importance lies in how one sees language as being related to the world. Robin Lakoff writes quite profoundly in her paper The Way We Were or: The Real Actual Truth About Generative Semantics: A Memoir that there were two types of people involved in transformational grammar; she implies that a fundamental difference in mindset caused the rift between generative semantics and the more mainstream Chomskyists. The mainliners had mathematical backgrounds and wanted to systematize language in a rational, formal structure. On the other hand, the second group, who she describes as being humanists, found promise in Chomsky's statement that language was a window to the mind, a way to see how people actually worked. For them the theory entailed more than manipulating formal structures. It had to do with how we thought and avoided thinking; how we got together in groups, and why groups had misunderstandings … a means of encoding all those complexities that produced literature, war, and puns.
At the time we were getting into this, Robin Lakoff was teaching a class on pragmatics, which is concerned with the sometimes unspoken circumstances or context involved in forming an utterance: politeness, for example, or power relations. Lakoff's work hasn't been swept aside by the scientific unwieldiness of generative semantics as a theory; on the contrary, the field of linguistics has evolved to the point where the debate that had been so confrontational is now largely irrelevant. She even writes that perhaps the problem was that linguistics shouldn't have been called a science to begin with. But even in the field of pragmatics one can sense the poetry in the ambition to if not formalize, at least be able to describe what goes on outside the purely syntactic functions of language, to be able to say exactly what is going on between the lines, to describe the relation between what is said and the social context in which it is said. The generative semanticists' approach was to say that meaning could be formalized within syntax; pragmatics tries to analyze implicit meaning. We of course found all this interesting for our work.
One last thing about the use of references in artworks - I think that the reason why the press release has become a center of attention goes beyond the fact that it establishes credibility, but that a work's significance relies less and less on concrete images or indexes found in the work itself, and more on a declarative statement by the artist, curator, gallery or whatever institutional support the work has. By telling the viewer what something is, an otherwise hermetic exhibition space is connected to the rest of the world. I find that, as opposed to these types of statements, non-predicative statements are much more interesting. As an analogy, you could say that the impact of an insult doesn't depend on its reference to the world. If someone says, "You are an asshole", you are not insulted because of the statement's literal meaning. Insults are interesting because name-calling does not rely on language's consistency with the world to which it refers; the impact of the insult has not to do with reference, but with the experience of language itself.
|Starship Nummer 11, Seiten 22ff|