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A brief treatise on the despair of meaning Or The Pointlessness of Everything

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.” “The question is”, said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

This little spectacle of the absurd from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland , is perhaps the most demonstrative of the verbally ectropic times that we live in. Never before has the logocentric human civilisation(s) produced so many words, mutating, mixing and distorting languages and grammars, to produce words, so many, so nuanced, so familiar and yet distant, that they mean nothing. And if you were a Shakespearean, you would echo Lear’s declaration that ‘Nothing shall come of Nothing’. It is possible to take words by their collars and mug them, when nobody is looking – disfigure them, torment them, twist and turn them upside down, like victims of a schoolyard bully – till they lose all resemblance to themselves and turn purple in their faces. It is possible to string together innocuous words that make sense, as a unit, in themselves and yet fall apart when they talk to each other, all we have is a cacophonic babble of empty signifiers and unmoored meanings. The only way to navigate through the treacherous surfaces of these words and their worldlessness is to resort to producing dictionaries, thesauruses, glossaries, and when all else fails, new lexicons to accommodate for the thisness and thatness of the verbal big bang we are all a part of.

It is to this – the need to invent a lexicon as a response to the quagmire of language(s) that this post shall address. Why, pray, a lexicon? What purpose would it serve? What will it do except for adding to the already murky landscape of word-meaning correlation, where each word treacherously serves many masters, who make them leap hoops, demanding incessantly, new meanings, layers and ideas which can be pinned on to the word, already burdened with its historical meaning making? Is this salvation or merely a demonstration of the implosion of meaning in the blackhole of language?

Let us take these questions, one at a time and see if there are any patterns that may emerge.

Why, pray, a lexicon? To begin answering this question, I can only draw attention to some of the most influential lexicons in the world. When we think of a lexicon, we generally see a book and presume that the book is a lexicon – a way of making meaning through a set of concepts and ideas which self-referentially explain each other. However, that book, the canonical authority of knowledge, is actually only a manifestation of the lexicon rather than the lexicon itself. The lexicon, though it is often imagined to be a book, or a new language, or a new set of words, is actually, a meta-book/language/set of words. The lexicon, at the paradigmatic level is the logic, the form, and set of rules which explains how meaning making happens in a language. It is the sum total of all the words in a language but more than just the sum of all the words in a language – It is the self-referential system by which words make sense.

The Lexical Turn that we signal to in these discussions, is thus, about a crisis in language – not only about the material and discursive aspects of language – but a crisis in the very meaning making ability of language; especially the language in theory, practice and art in the times of postmodernism.

What purpose would it serve? Probably none. Meaning making is such an arbitrary process (You can ask anybody from Plato to Kant to Derrida) that any interventions to explain or reconstruct the meaning making process, only adds to the chaos. The giant leap of faith that all of us demonstrate in reassuring each other that we understand what the other person is saying, is actually wrapped up in aching anxiety emerging of the knowledge that we can never be sure, that the blue you see and blue I see is the same blue. The Lexicon is the arbitrator of this randomness and chaos – not to make sense out of it and order it like items in a catalogue, but to remind us, more than ever, of the randomness that exists and the necessity to recycle words, repurpose them to make them fit meanings that make more sense. And if nothing else, it allows us to heal words that have so long been abused with meaning; to help them recuperate from the hollowness of overuse and give them the gift of meaning.

It is time, says this Lexicon, to go back to the dawn of time when words were free and sometimes present only in their absence, and perform three sets of actions:

The first is to rescue some words from the overuse and abuse that they have suffered at the hands of writers who have suffused them with meanings, practitioners who have denuded them of their basic meanings, and mass-media have distorted beyond recognition. These are words that are stretched so thin, that it is time, once again, to go and ask the question, “What does it mean?” Words that have been central to the articulation of our multiple modernities, words that were once useful in the capturing of the time-space continuums they belonged to, but now stay incoherent and futile in their usage. We seek to go back to those words and repurpose them, giving them new layers, new meanings, and sometimes, old meanings, that were once lost and are in need of a resurrection.

The second is to Imbricate words. Words and ideas that have been trapped in hegemonic discourses, have been straight jacketed in narrative imperatives and laced up in dominant discursive practices, need to be re-arranged in new patterns. Not the invention of new words, but the re-alignment of older existing words that still have enough cache and currency to be a part of our attention. How do we find new meanings for old words? Is it possible to think of a way in which all the existing words can toggle their meanings so that we are left in a world that is simultaneously familiar and strange?

The third is to expose words. The Lexical Turn that we chart is not a unitary activity. Rather, like Benjamin’s Constellations, it exists in a context of other shifts, transitions and transactions. Modes of thought, structures of power, ways of living and notions of the self (among other things) have morphed, mutated and mixed. And in the process, some strange old words and phrases, some fairly unknown ideas, and some very strange sounding articulations have come to light. They have a material presence in our lives but we don’t always see them in the kaleidoscopic hypnosis of our learned word systems.

Over the next six posts, this forum is going to perform these three functions. It is not my intention to make exhaustive lists and write the entire lexicon. Instead, through metaphors, through theoretical concepts, quasi-philosophical arguments and joyful misinterpretation and misrepresentation of ideas, I shall posit the methodology for understanding, documenting and introjecting this monster that we have created – The many headed hydra of the Lexicon.


The Time Space Non Continuum

Or How to Escape the Frying Pan and Fall in the Fire

A few years ago, when I took my PhD advisor and close friend Ashish to watch the new Harry Potter movie that had come to the cinemaplex, he made a startling observation at the end of the movie. The general responses to the movie, in my fanboi obsessive mode, were about fantasy, witches, wizards, the nature of magic, the works. However, Ashish told me that he found the movie fascinating because it was signalling to two things: One, a crisis in real-estate as muggles and magicians struggled to co-exist in the same Time but in different spaces. Two, a depressing realisation that Space, even in the most magical of dimensions remains inescapable in its imperative presence.

As in real-estate, it would seem, that the three things that are the most important in contemporary theorisation (and even narratives of fantasy), are Location! Location! Location! Well, not perhaps location (now that ‘locatedness’ has become a bad word) but the notion of space, the idea of place and the tyranny of geography have haunted formulations of modernity and subsequently postmodernity in the 20th Century. So strong has been the metaphor of space that every concept, every idea, every passing thought gets reified into concrete, material entities that can be cartographically charted, biologically defined, or socio-culturally reproduced through practices. The notion of spatiality informs some of the most influential categories and concepts and in the process stops them from realising their own abstract potential. This can be recognised in a series of crises that we have produced in the last few decades. These crises are manifold and they appear to be about different trajectories and contexts, but what they have in common, is the hegemony of space and the inescapability of corporeality.

Nowhere else is this crisis more evident than in the Cultural Studies turn that academics and research have taken in Asia. The need to re-turn to practices, communities, people, geographies, cultural productions and objects is symptomatic of a need to geographically and physically anchor theorisation and practice. Buzzwords like ‘local’, ‘located’, ‘contextual’ – ideas of objective reality which can be demonstrated through its physical processes – became popular and demanded that the spatial be a part of analytics and research. So for example, the temporal framework of music got translated into music videos and physical objects like CDs and DVDs. The affective tropes of pleasure and desire got concretised into objects like pornography. Emotional investments into aspiration and nostalgia found culture industries developing around them. Even in the most radical articulations of the post-modern, the virtual and the non-real, the axes of time and space were present and injunctively eminent.

Space – whether in geography or in the blit network of the mind – has been the only site upon which knowledge or understanding could reside and meaning making could happen. Very few writers of fantasy and of the future could escape Space which becomes the mechanism of building consensus, of forming tangibly accessible ideas and of writing monolithic narratives of our differences. William Gibson, in his conception of cyberspace, even though he refers to spatiality, perhaps for the first time gives us a route of negotiating with the hegemony of Space. Gibson wrote:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...

While there are problems with Gibson’s understanding of cyberspace (and how, sadly, he takes up the metaphor of light networks in the city when he could have done so much more), there are three ideas that are present in that definition which are worth exploring. The first is the notion of non-space. The non-space, like Marcos Novak points out in his understanding of Transmitting Architecture, is not merely the absence of space but the material which defies space – like quantum particles that move together in different directions and dimensions, like black-holes that suck up all matter and remain nebulous, dense non-matter, affected only by the gravitational pull of its own centre.

The second, is the use of the ellipsis at the end of the description. The lack of finite meaning, the realisation that the articulation, which sets out to be futuristic and escaping the tyrannies of space, eventually falls back in the same grids that spatiality has defined, are all embedded in that ellipsis.

The third is the idea of a consensual hallucination. In the paradox that this phrase produces, Gibson is clearly hinting, both within the text of the novel (Neuromancer) but also for a larger philosophical abstraction, the inescapability of space. Space becomes the site on to which even the virtual and the hallucinative will have to manifest themselves to make sense. One wonders if the coinage ‘Cybertime’ would also have the same definition and the paradox. If Time were the antithesis of space, what would the description look like?

Cybertime. A non-consensual reality un-experienced irregularly by an insignificant number of illegitimate slackers, in non-nations, by non-entities unlearning philosophical concepts...An intangible simulation of non-data infused into co-operatives of every organ in the network system. Thinkable simplicity. Parabloas of darkness disarranged in time, flickers and solitary flashes of information. Like black-holes, expanding;

This is not to suggest, in any foreseeable way, that Time is more liberating than space. The intangibility of the temporal dimension does not offer any more negotiation than the unbearable heaviness of Spatiality. If anything, because of its invisible capillaries which make us all subjects of history and creatures caught in the Narrativum (the narrative condition if you will), Time becomes as tyrannical as its Greek embodiment Chronos. However, what the dismantling of the time-space mantle offers is a way of renegotiation and reflection upon our practice and theory that was not possible before this.

The one example that has emerged in the context of India, that looks at a material non-space is in the form of the global spaces of consumption. In Bangalore, where I write this forum from, there has been a non-space that has emerged, which, even though it is couched in physical neon lit glass walled geographies, exists only in the hyper-time of the mind. Cafe Coffee Day, one of the most popular coffee spaces in the city that serves quick coffee (to avoid a quality judgement) in ambiguous spaces - neutral, generic, non-impressive - offers as its tag line, "a lot can happen over coffee" and that intrigues me. Because coffee becomes the non-space where conversations, relationships, networks - a lot - can happen. It is not in the temporal framework nor the spatial one. Coffee seems to be quantum. And in this nothingness, it seems to offer the space for public demonstration and private intercourse which escapes the tyranny of time-space continuums.

The transfer of the concepts and the blank spaces that existed in the liminality of the time-space continuum, can now be discovered and new kinds of knowledges can be glimpsed if not produced. The de-coupling does not propose the shift of the Spatial paradigm to the Temporal one, but a disavowal of both in order to hear voices that were subsonic, identities that were ultraviolet – in short the unknown, the unthought of, and the invisible.

This de-coupling of the accepted metaphysical yoking together of Time and Space is the beginning of a new vocabulary, or perhaps a new lexicon. It helps us go back to accepted concepts and ideas and find some which need to be rescued and some others which need to be uplifted from the ignominy of non-use to see how their presence in our theorisation offers new ways of reflecting upon our practice – in art and theory. Within the framework of this de-coupling, I offer four concepts that might become the beginning of the lexicon which we seek to build:

In the following days, I shall be exploring each of these concepts to see how they emerge from the de-coupled environments towards a new lexicon of understanding the things as they are.


Making Meaning Out of Molehills : The Framework

Before I start looking at the Penumbra, as I promised in the last post, I need to explain why I am doing what I am doing. Or in other words, what might appear as making meaning out of molehills, needs to be justified as an intellectual inquiry and a exposition on the context from which I speak. The first concept I want to introduce is the Penumbra. However, to begin talking about penumbra, I will have to begin by talking about Light (and possibly shadows). In fact, in this post, it is still too early to talk about Penumbra, and it will remain, like the intangible ghost that it is, unrevealed, invisible and reticent in this post. However, what I seek to do is to talk about the problems of Light and Darkness and Shadows and Visions, in order to lay out the framework through which all subsequent concepts and ideas will be explored in these discussions.

In Science education around the world, children are taught about light in a very strange way. Initially, they are told that light is a particle, that it travels in a straight line, and that is how we are able to make beams of light which can be focused on a particular object to give it light and life - like a spot light on a stage, that allows for the particles to shroud the actor in a focus. Eventually, without actually contradicting the earlier knowledge, students are taught that light is a wave, that it travels in wave like functions, creating crests and troughs or light and shadow, thus allowing us to scatter light over a large area through a small pin-hole – like the projection in a movie theatre where the waves hit the silver-screen to produce motion, movement and an illusion of life.

I begin with this ambiguity towards light because, it brings into focus – if I may use a light metaphor myself – the two central ways in which light has been at the core of how we understand and imagine the world around us. As a Particle, we see light as a space that converts darkness – which is the absence of light – into shadows. Indeed, it is because of light that shadows exist; the light, so to speak, allows us to see shadows, which are otherwise just unseeing and unseeable darknesses. As a Wave, we see light as connecting other sources of light – geographies, people and times – thus creating the idea of coherence and giving us the much needed mortal reassurance that we are not alone. Light, then, as this Particle-Wave thing pervades not only our imagination of the contemporary, but also that of the pasts and futures.

It is embedded in our languages – where we think of history as that Particle of Light that converts boring and everyday Past into exciting and significant history. We imagine the Wave of Light as a way of divining future and extending our journey through time. Across different cultures and spaces, light has been at the centre of how we see – Seeing without light is more difficult than flying without wings – and how others see us. From the moment of the European Enlightenment, where knowledge, like light, was to help us see the Real World (in capitals) to the moment of neo-liberalisation in Asia, where countries like India are made to shine – We have an official India Shining Campaign since 2001 – as beacons of hope for the proposed restructuring of the world, Light, has been the central obsession of almost all human endeavour.

This Particle-Wave nature of light is a significant symptom of a rupture, or a moment of blindness that we have towards light. Because we are able to see through light, and because of light, we are actually blinded towards light, with light and often to the circumstances within which light exists. So simultaneously erotic and everyday is our relationship with light that we can only think of it as the ‘natural’ way of being. Light, in our times, has become a hegemonic, coercive, erstwhile dominant aesthetic which becomes the reson de etre for all our quests, aspirations and ambitions.

It is sometimes interesting to see what happens when alternative paradigms of light are created, often in art and in fantasy. Terry Pratchett, a British fantasy writer, for instance, shows us the subversion in his Disc-World novel Thud. Pratchett creates a race of underground dwelling dwarves and their mythologies of Light, as they create their own myths of origin. Here is a small excerpt about Tak – the maker of worlds in dwarf creation stories:
"The first thing Tak did, he wrote himself.
The second thing Tak did, he wrote the Laws.
The third thing Tak did, he wrote the World.
The fourth thing Tak did, he wrote a cave.
The fifth thing Tak did, he wrote a geode, an egg of stone.
And in the twilight of the mouth of the cave, the geode hatched and the Brothers were born.

The first Brother walked towards the light, and stood under the open sky. Thus he became too tall. He was the first Man. He found no Laws, and he was enlightened.

The second Brother walked towards the darkness, and stood under a roof of stone. Thus he achieved the correct height. He was the first Dwarf. He found the Laws Tak had written, and he was endarkened.

But some of the living spirit of Tak was trapped in the broken stone egg, and it became the first troll, wandering the world unbidden and unwanted, without soul or purpose, learning or understanding. Fearful of light and darkness it shambles for ever in twilight, knowing nothing, learning nothing, creating nothing, being nothing”

I bring this particular fantasy excerpt because Pratchett is hinting at a certain, much needed turn in our vocabulary, attitude and frameworks towards understanding light - to escape both our moments of enlightenment and endarkenment, and explore the troll in its twilights and nothingnesses which we have ignored so far. It is a moment of complete dissension, a moment to talk neither of light nor darkness, not of focus and attention, not of images and shadows, but the in-between liminalities that reside in the interstices of our blind-spots. It is time to explore the nothing that we have not known, the nothing that we have not learned, the nothing that we have not created, and the nothing that we have not allowed to come into being.

It is this particular turn away from light (and hence by association, the darkness and the shadows) that discussion seeks to unpack in its articulation of a lexical turn that seeks to explain contemporary research and practice in theory and art. The lexical turn seeks to not merely dismiss existing categories or replace them with equally dominant and hegemonic categories of epistemic origins. Instead, it proposes to repurpose existing epistemes and ontologies, and see how new digital technologies of the self lead to examining new conditions of theorisation and practice in our fields of inquiry and engagement. And now that we have this in place, next stop, beyond light and shadow, but also between them, Penumbra.


Phishing for Examples : De-abstracting the Framework

If the very spirit of this discussion is to avoid definitions, provide ambiguity, and chart the chaos of words, it would be counter-intuitive to actually give you the gratification of fulfilled promises. Indeed, it is in the nature of this writing that it refuses to deliver the promise that words make - the kind of promises that good copy editors dream of – and hence, though we are almost at the Penumbra and at discussing the words themselves, we will take a brief detour into instanciation and examplising as we Phish for meanings in the framework that I have built. Before we reach the elusive Penumbra – both in its form and its exposition – we will wait for a bit, and see if the abstractions posited so far can make sense in marking the lexical turn that I am trying to address. Or in other (equally confusing words), before we go on to talk about these words (penumbra being the first) that shall (hopefully) change the world that we live in and how we see it, we need to reiterate the framework and see if it makes sense. And because there are people with pointed implements nodding their head in exasperation at the warped time-space distortions the writing has been producing, we shall do this with an example. Also; by the time this piece of writing is over, you will realise why I needed this looped up recursive detour in order to reach that much awaited Penumbra moment.

Let me give one example, drawing from the popular discourse of our theory and practice, which might help in both understanding the criticality that our collaboration with NEWS seeks, as well as the methodologies that we invest in to reflect upon our praxis. Let us work with the notion of the community – a word that has been abuzz, both in social sciences and in art practices in the last couple of decades. Community art, community intervention, community practice, sustainable community participation – phrases like these turn up more frequently than punctuation in the current discourses. There is a certain, almost romantic imagination of the community, which resembles the Wave-Particle nature of Light. The community, on the one hand, is an inclusive force that brings coherence to individuals, by bringing them together around different practices, ideas, ideologies and belief systems. On the other hand, the community is also a space of exclusion, where anybody who refuses to engage with the dominant erstwhile – either to subscribe to it or to deny it – is immediately made into a Non-being. The community, in fact, has been extensively imagined as a space of light and shadow, where the people who endorse it and the detractors, are posited in binary oppositions as essentially creating, and in their refusal, re-creating the community continuously.

Whether it is an Imagined Community the way in which Benedict Anderson posits it, or a community of material practices like the Political Society that Partha Chaterjee understands it, or even a community of temporal consensus as is found in the works of cyberculture theorist Danah Boyd, all communities function in this way. And that is why, in theory and practice, in art and other social sciences discourse, we have now created the figure of the warring artist, the avant garde, the messiah who shall intervene in the community to bridge the chasms and gaps and black holes, with the lights of our theory and practice. We have, at least since the beginning of the 21st Century, been reproducing a hegemonic structure which not only endorses power imbalances and inequities but also making them replicable, by imagining the community as a space of inclusion. In our efforts at engaging with a constituency or a demography, we often lead to homogenisation of people, flattening of landscapes and a further pushing of the non-beings into the peripheries of non-space and non-time. Even in work that engages actively with the people at the borders or the margins, there is a blind re-creation of new borders and margins as the ‘participants’ are trained to become members of the community, and enlightened to the Foucaultian capillaries of power to which they are subject. While the work might question the existing structures of certain communities and render it in new contours – this is the Community as wave or community as particle question – they still only deal with the visibility (through presence of absence) of light, without actually questioning the role, the position, and the function of the artist or theorist. And this unreflective, un-refracting position of the individual who broadcasts his/her ideas to a community of participants, leads to often untold, unheard of and unimagined violences which do not appear on the surface of the community because they exist only as microscopic fractures beneath the surface of the veneer.

It would be futile to replace the idea and structure of the community with a new structure, which, by definition, would only reproduce and postpone this crisis of theory and practice. Instead, we look at a new relationship and new positions from which to act/intervene/theorise, drawing from new technologies, paradigms and shifts that we are all experiencing. Take the network, for example. It is not a new concept. Many people from Jean-Paul Sartre to Bruno Latour to Manuel Castells have written a lot about the power, structure and potentials of networking in the Information Societies. However, the network theories were only pale imitations of the community idea, where the network was constituted by actors who do things and thus produce connections. We are trying to re-purpose this actor-network nexus by complicating it and by introducing the network as an epistemic way of changing our understanding the very nature of theory and practice.

We imagine a network as a self-learning, growing and dynamic collection of multiply interlinked nodes which are at parity and equity with each other. Each node is not merely a source of knowledge, information or ideas but a stake-holder in the sustaining of the network. Every stake-holder is a part of a network not because of faith or belief but of a conscious interest in sustaining the network. In such a situation, there are no hierarchies structural power positions – though of course, with increasing stakes and contribution, some nodes become more visible than the others – within a network. Moreover, the stake holders, in their own interest, are responsible for sustaining, elevating and creating conditions of growth for the weaker links in their network to make it more robust. The stakeholder is not always merely human, but a combination of hardware, software and wetware, thus making the network stronger than the sum total of its nodes. The stakeholder is not pitched in conditions of competitions or exclusions but as sustainably leading towards an all inclusive growth. The stakeholder, while he/she/it is important to the network, the network is not threatened by the absence of participation or the pulling out of one or many stakeholders. Which is why, we have conditions of lurkers within the digital world – people who are have a stake in the network, and are participative, only in their notional presence on the network as an articulation of their stake.

It is impossible to give a comprehensive view of the Network, but these are some of the first ideas that we are taking into consideration; What the Participant was to a Community, a stake-holder is to a Network. And the Network-Stake-holder model allows us to reimagine the notions of the artist or the practitioner or theorist who intervenes in a particular mode. The artist is no longer the messiah or the development worker or a plug-in/plug-out individual who enters the space of the community for a specific, terminable purpose. The artist is not the torch bearer or the one with the focus. Instead, the artist emerges as a stake-holder with sustained and reflective powers of critical engagement with the network. The artist is neither in light nor in darkness, not interested in images or shadows, but instead, exists in a new space of liminality – the penumbra.


Penumbra Queries Shadow

Or How Absence of Light Does not a Shadow Make

The penumbra is defined as the slight shade that surrounds the shadow and gives it shape. All forms that are unspeakable, unspoken, unrecognised, unrecognisable, have always been dumped in the non-space of the penumbra. And in this location, as a stake-holder, the artist has new forms of questions and new ways of articulating them. This is still the brink of new positions, perspectives and ideas. And I will not push the argument much further but present a small fable from ancient Chinese, which perhaps illustrates the need to imbricate – rearrange and rethink – our contemporary Particle-Wave practices and theories.
This well-known fable from Zhuangzi appears in ‘Making All Things Equal’ and ‘Fables’ in the following two slightly different versions, that Naifei Ding and Liu-Jen Peng have used successfully to expose our reticent compliance as practitioners and theorists, with the hegemonic structures of our time. In the exegetical traditions, Guo Xiang has annotated wangliang (shade, penumbrae) as ‘the slight shade outlining a shadow’.

Penumbrae Query Shadow*

Penumbra said to Shadow, ‘A little while ago you were walking and now you’re standing still; a little while ago you were sitting and now you’re standing up. Why this lack of independent action[tecao]?’

Shadow said, ‘Do I have to wait for something before I can be like this? Does what I wait for also have to wait for something before it can be like this? Am I waiting for the scales of a snake or the wings of a cicada? How do I know why it is so? How do I know why it isn’t so?’

There is another version of the query that appears:

Penumbrae once asked Shadow, ‘A little while ago you were looking down and now you’re looking up, a little while ago your hair was bound up and now it’s hanging loose, a little while ago you were sitting and now you’re standing up, a little while ago you were walking and now you’re still – why is this?

Shadow said, ‘Quibble, quibble! Why bother asking about such things? I have them but I don’t know how. I’m the shell of the cicada, the cast-off skin of the snake – like them and yet not like them. In firelight or sunlight I draw together, in darkness or night I fade away. Am I not dependent on the substance from which I am thrown? And that substance is itself dependent on something else! When it comes, I come with it; when it goes, I go with it. When it comes under the influence of the strong Yang (Substance), I come under the same. Since we are both produced by that strong Yang, what occasion is there for you to question me?

Of the question-answer between penumbrae and shadow, we will here forget for the moment any ancient or mystic philosophy and return to this staging of a question and answer between penumbrae and shadow. As subjects of speech in everyday life in the present moment, we have become used to listening to ‘form-substance’ (xing) speak, while shadow which follows substance is usually thought of as less than subject. Shadow is the darkness that follows or attends upon form-substance when and where there is light.

Shadow comes together and changes following substance and light. Not only does shadow not have self-autonomy, she lacks constancy and loyalty. Time, space, light, direction, distance and speed can all make her change, like the rudder of a boat in strong wind. Yet, should one want to get rid of shadow in the manner of throwing away an old shoe, one will find that she cannot be trampled into disappearance. As long as there is light, shadow is that silent darkness that cannot be shed. When substance runs from shadow in the light of day, substance can run to the death, shadow would still be there, unless substance were to enter into darkness, too. Penumbra, that slight shade outlining shadow, the shadow of a shadow, is that nothing or no-matter that everyone had almost forgotten. Penumbra is too far away from substance to be seen or discerned. Penumbra, or wangliang, is not a common usage; it has nothing to do with the language of the everyday. We need a dictionary, an exegetical text, to understand what it means; many have come to know the term first, and then turned to examine their shadow. Besides the shadow, which is without subjectivity, there is penumbra that is even less a subject. If penumbra’s existence is hard to detect, then, penumbra’s followings, its attendances or lack of independence, its transformations, its lack of integrity, all of these are even more difficult to know.
All blurred indeterminacies that cannot be named are termed ‘penumbrae’ in the plural (zhong wangliang). Penumbra, or wangliang are seen as not having character(istics) while their form-substance cannot be outlined. They remain in the margin of shadow where people cannot see them, stealing a life (gouqie tousheng).
And yet, this story has it so that wangliang should ask a question!
Has shadow answered her question?

If shadow represents the voice of the artist in our traditional understanding, and has indeed answered the question, whose or what question has shadow answered?

Has shadow heard penumbra? Can shadow understand penumbra’s questions?

Substance never appears in this fable, yet s/he is everywhere (addressed), in the text, in the readings and exegeses, but also in the answer given by shadow. Shadow’s thought, her speech, are all addressed to substance. In relation to substance, perhaps shadow is speaking of another inter-subjective mode of thought. But does this mode of thought answer penumbra’s question? Penumbra’s conditions of existence are different from that of shadow.

Perhaps penumbra admires how shadow constantly transforms; or penumbra is curious about shadow’s changing postures and hairdo. Penumbra may well have its own particular mode of ‘independent action’ (tecao, ‘hold onto’) and wants to share this with shadow.

Perhaps the dependency or attendance that shadow speaks of is a familiar story or condition of existence or irrelevant philosophy for penumbra. Penumbra’s question, on the other hand, is about ‘independent action’. Shadow cannot see this and does not understand. Yet, in being questioned and in shadow’s answer and rethinking of the question, penumbra’s questions inspire and incite shadow while completing shadow’s alternative (to substance’s) subjectivity.

Penumbra continues to question, again and again.

I begin with the Penumbra because for me, Penumbra is not only the concept that needs to be included in the Lexicon at our hands but also serves as the framework within which the Lexicon exists. It is simultaneously the beginning of the lexicon for me, as well as the defining moment of the lexicon for me. From hereon, I write, from within the Penumbra, of words beyond light and shadow, or perhaps, both light and shadow in their relationship to the temporal and spatial divisions that we take for granted in our theory and practice.

* I am grateful to Ding Naifei and Liu Renpeng for this translation of the fable as well as the analysis which appears in their reflections on politics and representation in the queer movements in Taiwan.


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