Exhibitions are all right for those of us who like that sort of thing, but like other artworldly activities, they’re pretty harmless. As art seems to have exhausted much of its potential, why not turn our art-critically honed tools to more corrosive phenomena – the kind that suit no one’s purpose, like that all-pervasive, horizontal network of open-source speech-acts of confident uncertainty known as rumour? If only because rumour can wreak more havoc in the public sphere in half an hour than art can in a century, is it not worth at least considering as a possible role model for an unauthored, viewer-free art that escapes itself?
Sometimes called the world’s oldest media, rumour runs rampant at every level of society. Like its siblings gossip and hearsay – and even what well-thinking citizens loosely refer to as “news” – rumour is not just the channel through which the subordinate classes and their populist proxies vent their spleens against the rich and powerful, spreading compromising half-truths about them. Nor, conversely, is rumour merely an instrument with which the powers-that-be leverage public opinion. It is clear, however, that rumour is linked both to power and counter-power, and can only be understood in terms of its relation to authority and authorised information. In short, if rumour is so corrosively effective, it is because it is itself a media.
What everybody knows
Rumour is thoroughly ambiguous, not least of all because it is both the medium and the information mediated – the word means both things simultaneously. Though rumour is characterised by its indeterminacy – its basic anonymity and lack of identifiable source or authentication protocol – rumours are performative. That is, they make things happen – often terrible things. We say “there is no smoke without fire,” for once a person is touched by rumour, it is next to impossible for them to clear their name. It is for this reason that rumours have always proven so terrifyingly effective in provoking panic and pogroms. Whether they spread from the outskirts of authority to the corridors of power, or the other way round, rumours have always terrified and inspired the common people no less than their rulers, sparking fear of war and reprisal, thirst for vengeance and retaliation. Power literally cowers as rumours of sedition or insurrection spread, and every regime deploys its mouches, hearsay monitors, rumour clinics and hotlines to dispel them. Yet power too, like counter-power, almost inherently engenders rumours, knowing full well that mastery of the social technology of rumour is a recipe – though a precarious one – for political hegemony. At the same time, rumours are always specific – and specific to their context. A rumour “flies” in one context though it would never leave the ground in another: to spread, a rumour has to find purchase on the collective unconscious in a given time and place. This suggests that rumour is perhaps before all else a pre-composed and thus inauthentic form of desire. But its context specificity is linked to rumour’s indeterminacy: precisely because it is by definition unauthored, rumour is what “people are saying,” what’s “going around” or – to quote Montréal songwriter Leonard Cohen – what “everybody knows.” “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded… everybody knows the fight was fixed… That’s how it goes… Everybody knows.” This is what makes rumour so impossible to suppress or control, and why in this age of the blogosphere, cell-phone chatter and media concentration, rumour has such a promising, and eminently dubious, future before it.
From the perspective of cultural history, it is perhaps tempting to see rumours as dimly glowing artefacts from the past: fleeting, untamed, collective discursive events, which exist only in the transience of their communication, they indicate a society’s prejudices and point to its scapegoats (“Anti-Semitism,” wrote Adorno with acuity, “is the rumour about Jews”). More incisive, however, is to document the performative power of rumour by examining some of the ways in which contemporary artists have made use of that media to deconstruct, manipulate or exploit its fascinating power. And more specifically, to consider how they have made use of rumour’s paradoxical capacity to build community – that is, its ability to draw participants into a collective rhetorical operation of confident uncertainty. For, as everybody knows, a rumour instils in its listeners an almost overwhelming urge to pass it on to someone else.
Irresistibly transmissible, celeritous, its effects often irreversible, rumour has attracted the attention of religious authorities. Lashon hara, for instance, is the Hebrew term for “evil language,” or more plainly “disparaging speech, and refers to the sin of rumour-mongering, considered particularly reprehensible. A famous Chasidic tale illustrates this point: A man went about the community spreading malicious rumours about the rabbi. Later, he thought better of what he had done, remembering how intensely aware Judaism is of the power of speech and the harm it can do. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this a strange request, but as it was a simple enough task, he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect the feathers.”
Of course, rumour has long fascinated artists and writers: the ancient Romans, for instance, portrayed rumour as a divinity named Fama – a faceless, sometimes formless figure (Virgil portrays her as a “monstrum horrendum”) who is quick on her feet, ready to jump at the drop of a hat, running, whispering, lying and betraying. One of the most striking evocations of rumour is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: instead of depicting Fama herself, Ovid describes workings of rumour by evoking the architectonics of her residence. The House of Fama stands as a subversive counter-world to the one structured by the rationality of Augustine rule – and offers an uncanny anticipation of the architecture of modern communications networks. Strangely akin, when one gets right down to the potential “tags” it offers, to portal that is n.e.w.s., with its “globally culled voices,” and self-defined “expansive practice” of bricolage.
At the world’s centre lies a place between
The lands and seas and regions of the sky,
The limits of the threefold universe,
Whence all things everywhere, however far,
Are scanned and watched, and every voice and word
Reaches its listening ears. Here Fama dwells,
Her chosen home set on the highest peak,
Constructed with a thousand apertures
And countless entrances and never a door.
It’s open night and day and built throughout
Of echoing bronze; it all reverberates,
Repeating voices, doubling what it hears.
Inside, no peace, no silence anywhere,
And yet no noise, but muted murmurings
Crowds throng its halls, a lightweight populace
That comes and goes, and rumours everywhere,
Thousands, false mixed with true, roam to and fro,
And words flight by and phases all confused.
This house of rumour, at once impermeable and shot through with openings, is astonishingly evocative of the building in the central square of downtown Damascus that is the protagonist of The Speculative Archive’s video, We don’t like it as it is but we don’t know what we want it to be. The building is literally a concrete example of a rumour mill, with “a thousand apertures” and “never a door”, engendering countless rumours, “false mixed with true,” about the Syrian regime in a political context where information is utterly unreliable and thus permanently liable to relapse into “muted murmurings.”
It is interesting to note that Ovid mentions rumours “false mixed with true,” for it is often supposed that rumours are untrue by definition. When considered in this respect, the ontological question “What is rumour?” appears less relevant than the more circumstantial question “When is rumour?” In other words, rumour is seen as the dark underside of trustworthy information, emerging when a fissure develops in the criteria of validity and verifiability of otherwise unquestioned information. This manner of describing rumour as untruth – often deliberately and systematically distorted information – is very much in keeping with the enlightenment project of ultimately ridding the world of rumour. At the time of the French Revolution, one revolutionary representative of the Enlightenment penned a famous text proclaiming that the “only and last aristocrat” was none other than… rumour, warning his compatriots that the deceit contrived by rumour-mongers – and what would later come to be known as “disinformation” – was the greatest enemy of democratic values. Though critical theory and art entertain no delusions about actually achieving a rumour-free public sphere, let alone blogosphere, it nevertheless remains their regulatory horizon. Martha Rosler stands very much in this tradition, having done as much as any contemporary artist to debunk the use of rumour and media manipulation by the powers-that-be in their manufacturing of consent. In an installation entitled “If It’s Too Bad To Be True It Might Be DISINFORMATION,” Rosler uses art-specific means and competence to deconstruct state-organised initiatives “to propagate false stories among target populations, whether by means of printed or broadcast stories or rumour campaigns, in order to produce unfocused fears and anxieties.” The focus of the installation is a video that uses first interrupted, then uninterrupted NBC Nightly News footage, drawing attention to the fact that there is never a straight story and that the “news” is rife with false insinuation and rumour. Rosler clearly asserts art’s specific use value in this rumour-busting, heuristic operation, saying that “when the uninterrupted footage comes back, you are looking at television in a way that you haven’t before because your heart is beating differently… I have changed your bodily mode in the way you receive the second half of the tape.”
However, it has been argued that the strangest thing about rumours is that it is practically irrelevant whether they are true or false: what counts is that they be up to date and, most importantly, that they do not hide their status as rumours. Rumour, by this account, is a self-substantiating, self-authenticating speech act, which always contains an embedded subordinate clause such as “rumour has it,” “they say” or “people are saying.” This is what accounts for a rumour’s extraordinary causticity – and the fact that refuting one is well near impossible, which is precisely the dilemma that Beirut-based conceptual artist Walid Sadek has addressed in much of his work. A rumour, in other words, is paradoxically that about which it is said that everyone is saying it. “Rumours,” writes rumour historian Hans-Joachin Neubauer, “are quotations with a loophole.” It is precisely the indeterminacy of rumour that makes it virtually irrefutable. Because of course the main clause of a rumour – “people are saying” – is not something that can be refuted, whereas the substance of the rumour – “that the fight was fixed”, “that the dice were loaded” – is immune to denials because the logic of the sentence as a whole is untouched by them.
But is it not irrational to believe in – or to allow one’s opinion to be affected by – a speech act that makes no attempt to disguise its unsubstantiated or self-substantiating status? In explicit reference to the enlightenment’s still unshakeable confidence in the power of reason (as if rumour and reason did not function in perfect unison in bringing about the great moral catastrophe’s of the past century), Jochen Gerz, in a public art piece produced in 2000, used to heuristic advantage a narrative he invented about a rumour that “people had seen” a beam of green light linking the Belvedere Castle in Weimar, the capital of German high classicism with the watchtower at the Buchenwald concentration camp. “The rumour,” he wrote on one of the billboard texts he placed in Weimar’s public spaces, “is only fostered by the fact that all who have made enlightenment their mission in life have a tendency to doubt everything that cannot be deemed rational, as if coming to terms with a death camp in any way other than one of academic or scientific zeal were improper.” The rumour, and the public debate which it inevitably sparked, raises some of the most deep-seated, unspoken and uncomfortable issues about German history and about truth, shedding a narrow beam of public light on the links between German high classicism and fascism.
Rumours tend to conflate recipient and propagator into a single, but of course collective, subject of enunciation: to pass on a rumour is to deal in both “news” and “media”, message and messenger. A rumour has no individual subject, and to pass one on is to join the constantly spreading network of “people” who constitute the “they” – the agents of collective speech. This is what confers upon rumours their uncomfortable authority: it is so because everybody is saying it, and everybody is saying it because it is so. As Neubauer writes regarding the depiction of rumour by artists and authors throughout history, “in a rumour many different people say the same thing. And because of this they become a crowd, the individual parts of which are not simultaneously present… In the rumour the absent crowd speaks; its members only become visible in allegory.” This raises yet another fascinating aspect of rumour: its capacity to foster solidarity or even to create a “community” made up of those partaking in the rumour. In the same way that laughter builds and reveals a community (for, after all, those with whom we share laughter, or reprobation of others’ laughter, both discloses implicit community bonds and is constitutive of them), who will and who will not participate in circulating some rumour or other says a great deal about the latent tensions, hopes and fears within a society.
The artworld abounds with gossips and rumour-mongers, and it is fair to say that rumour plays a far more decisive role in processes of value-generation and the formation of opinion than is commonly acknowledged. Though rumour exists at every level of society, it is particularly prevalent in art circles both because art itself is necessarily bound up with communicative activity and because artworld rumour is part and parcel of symbolic capital accumulation processes. Artworld rumour thrives on discussions about exhibitions and works which participants in the discussion haven’t actually seen (“I hear such and such exhibition is no good”; “I’ve only heard good things about your show”). In Paris, in 1999, rumour was running high as to who was behind the counterfeit, but perfectly convincing invitation cards which artworlders were receiving for exhibitions that didn’t exist. “Everybody knew” and nobody knew who the author(s) were, as crowds of art lovers showed up to non-existent shows at prestigious venues… For the first time in 2006, Ultralab™ - whom no one had even suspected – came forward as having devised and executed this real-time experiment in the art of the rumour-smith, presenting both the cards themselves along with documents tracing the media reaction to their initiative – which, until then, had only been attributed by wild hearsay.
The war on rumour
Even in humorous situations such as these, rumour is a form of symbolic violence. And war and rumour are invariably companions in arms. “The state in war,” observed Sigmund Freud in 1915, “demands of its citizens the utmost obedience and sacrifice. However, it incapacitates them with an excess of secrecy and censorship, which makes them intellectually oppressed in this way, defenceless against every unfavourable situation and every wild rumour.” As in so many conflicts, rumour played a key role in the protracted civil wars that devastated Lebanon between 1975 and 1991. In her video work, Lamia Joreige has revisited the sites of countless “disappearances” along the so-called “green line” that separated east and west Beirut, asking people whether or not they had any recollections of people disappearing there, reconstructing through the sincerity or disingenuousness of their answers a sort of urban portrait of the power of rumour. The viewer gains an almost palpable sense of Beirut’s urban space shot through with overlapping, incompatible narratives.
In a moment, I will consider the politically explosive issue of panic rumour, but to adequately appreciate the work of someone like Lamia Joreige, it is important to understand the role and function of rumour in contexts of violence, such as wartime and insurrection. Understandably, military theorists and scholars have shown considerable interest in how rumour functions, both offensively (the use to which it can be put) and defensively (how to combat and kill rumours spread by the enemy). In 1944, at a time when the United State was heavily involved in the Second World War on both the European and Pacific fronts, R.H. Knapp, a social psychologist working for the U.S. military, wrote an essay on “The Psychology of Rumour,” which would become a highly influential study on the history and the proliferation of rumour. Knapp’s concern was to find ways to stifle rumour. If rumour is so indeterminate, he asked, then why is it so effective? Why do people listen to rumour, that is, to language that has been exiled from official sources, exiled from verifiability? This, he felt, was what needed to be understood. Knapp laid out a five-point action plan, which implicitly reveals five assumptions about rumour: first, he says, is that the public should maintain complete confidence in official media, so as not to be tempted to seek information elsewhere. In other words, rumour is a source of counter-information and emerges when confidence in official media is on the wane. Two, it is imperative that the public trust its leaders and government, and be made to see that they are doing everything possible to find solutions to problems raised by crises in the war. The subtext here is of course that rumour emerges in cases where there is generalised lack of faith. Three, when an event occurs, it is important to dispatch as much information as possible, for rumours are born of spontaneous questions to which the public finds no answer. Knapp obviously felt that rumour gravitates immediately to places where information is in short supply. Four – and here Knapp reveals his enlightenment bias toward rumour – distributing information alone is not sufficient, proper reception must be ensured, meaning that all enclaves of ignorance must be cleared. And five, since boredom fuels an avidity for news, it is crucial to maintain the population active through the organisation of leisure time. In the era of information capitalism and where the leisure industry reigns triumphant, Knapp’s prescription has distinctly big-brotherly overtones, implicitly designating organised leisure as the form of symbolic violence that it is.
If we bear in mind that these recommendations were made in a time of war, they may appear legitimate; but considered in and of themselves, it is clear that the solutions Knapp is advocating would lead to nothing short of a totalitarian state: a state requiring total devotion to one source of information (what he calls ‘official media’); demanding total faith in leadership; providing answers to all questions and allowing no fissures in which rumour could potentially take root and flourish; and of course keeping the population active through organised leisure time. Knapp is talking about all-out symbolic violence determining the modus operandi of the state – something which many Americans fear may be emerging in their country today. However, beyond the basic duality that he posits between rumour and official language – and his prescription to control if not eradicate the former with the latter – Knapp seems to be acknowledging something quite extraordinary about speech itself. For he sees it not as a self-regulating phenomenon, but rather as something fundamentally unreliable and potentially dangerous. His five prescriptions seem to confess his anxiety in the face of a language which seems prone to excess and unaccountability.
Edgar Morin’s book on the is perhaps the most celebrated study on rumour, focusing on the broadly recurrent rumour according to which women entering the change rooms of clothing stores run by Jews somehow never re-emerged and were sold into prostitution rings. Morin studied these wild rumours, particularly in the case of the French city of Orleans, where the rumour persisted long after it was factually debunked. Like in Knapp’s study, one finds in Morin’s work the basic contention that rumour, in its purest form, has no point of origin and circulates without any recourse to the press, poster tracts or even graffiti. That it is a media in and of itself. In such theories, in other words, one finds the assumption that rumours are a renegade form of speech. They are rampant, authorless, potentially dangerous – and in Morin’s case at any rate – pathological or even viral acts of language. To Morin’s mind, to believe a rumour is tantamount to participating in a form of collective hysteria or madness. There is obviously little to be gained by this ascription of a pathology to a form of media.
Other rumour theorists have gone so far as to postulate formulae for the conditions of possibility of rumour. Gordon Allport and Leo Postman’s reads as follows: Rumour = Importance x Uncertainty. Meaning that the strength of a rumour roughly corresponds with the importance of a particular rumour multiplied by the uncertainty about the overall situation. In other words, the more indeterminate the overall situation and the more significant the news, the stronger the rumour. If either of these factors approaches zero, no rumour can emerge. Though the formula appears initially quite convincing, other theorists have pointed out that it fails to take any account of the human factor. In an article tellingly entitled “The General Law of Rumour,” A. Chorus expands the formula to Rumour = Importance x Uncertainty x Critical Competence, placing extra weight on the “critical competence” of those involved in receiving and propagating the rumour. The higher the coefficient of criticality, the harder it is alleged to be for the rumour to spread; however, if rumour falls upon uncritical ears, it is ensured rapid propagation – once again revealing the Enlightenment bias of much rumour research.
But what sociologists of rumour never seem to consider is that rumour is not necessarily a stage of language that has been corrupted; it may indeed be that rumours are somehow the prehistory of all speech acts. This is an idea I take directly from Lebanese conceptual artist Walid Sadek, who has argued that rumours are the phase in which words drift homeless – at state in which they are somehow more than at home. Sadek is someone who has done a great deal of original work on rumour and the use of language in an urban environment, particularly in the context of the civil wars that ravaged Lebanon between 1975 and 1991. As he wrote in an insightful piece published in Parachute magazine, which anticipates his contribution to this exhibition in the form of an open letter in this catalogue,
“[l]iving in Beirut seems to place, increasingly, certain demands on artists to acknowledge first the inevitability of the floating sign both as a condition and as a prerequisite for any consequent critical activity. Demands which invite art to flirt with a certain understanding of rumours and thus to reconsider the conditions which govern and even promote an art practice based on the politics of protest. And if this reconsideration runs the risk of betraying some of the assumptions of such an art, it does so in order to re-assess the challenges of language use in an urban environment.
[The] challenge of rumours lies in the return which they signal. For I want to argue that rumours are the phase at which words are but pure promiscuity. And that requires, to a large extent, a re-conceptualisation of the notion of rumour as it also posits a serious challenge to how we understand art and how we assess its critical roles. For if rumours do announce a return to a world of unchecked textual promiscuity, then they also recall the decay of intent as they probably signal logic’s collapse, back into the ruins of words. Rumours are in this sense a stage at which art cannot rely on a presupposition which, simply said, maintains a distinction between words and acts disseminated (and lost), and words and acts intended (and pursued).”
Sadek’s point is that it is important to consider rumour not in terms of maintaining in words the visible roots of truth and justice but rather in re-emphasising the contingent beginning of all speech acts, and the inevitable ruination of all linguistic edifices.
Sadek’s sustained interest in rumour certainly stems from the use rumour was put to during the Lebanese civil wars, where unsigned, unauthored information circulated like wildfire – culture-fire so to speak. However, Sadek was himself the victim of rumour during an exhibition in Cairo in 2001, when he was accused – groundlessly – in the Egyptian press of being a sympathiser of the phalangist Christian militia in Lebanon. He returns to this experience in his open letter, where he touches on the futility of attempts to refute such rumours, and reflecting on the link between rumour and the possibility of forgiveness, which he concludes may be possible only in the company of his accuser – or, at any event, in the symbolic company of the latter’s text, “scattered over the rubble-strewn field of rumours.”
In some respects, Der Fall Joseph (The Joseph Affair), a documentary video installation put together by Petra Bauer provides a case study of Sadek’s hypothesis. Like Morin, though from the extradisciplinary perspective of the artist, Bauer has done intensive fieldwork on the poésie fabuleuse of a particular rumour – one concerning the drowning of a six-year-old immigrant child in a public swimming pool in former East Germany. Though the police found the boy’s death to be accidental, his mother subsequently carried out her own counter-investigation and found eye-witnesses saying he had deliberately been drowned by neo-nazis – an allegation which, in the specific context where the wounds of fascism continue to fester and de-nazification was never adequately undertaken, the press and public opinion was only too happy to believe. A subsequent inquiry, however, alleged that the mother had in fact paid the witnesses… a story that the press, this time round, decided to spin as proof that racism existed primarily in the dark fantasies of immigrants. Where is the rumour? Where is the truth? Do they overlap or stand irrevocably opposed? Bauer uses a ten-screen installation to give the various versions of the story, drawing attention to the highly mobile nature of rumour – it swift movement and constant changes of form. Because it possesses no defined author and thus no original truth, it is characterised by its fundamental indeterminacy.
In a more volatile political context, a rumour of this kind could have sparked inter-community strife, even triggered civil war. Similar drowning incidents have led to pitched violence between Serbs and Kosovars in Kosovo; one might also evoke the murderous role played by Radio Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, in disseminating panic rumour leading to mob violence and genocide. Consider in particular the politically devastating role played by rumour in the case of the partition of Palestine and India, which occurred in the wake of the slow-motion collapse of British colonialism in the late 1940s. In India, Partition certainly involved mass-scale violence – killing, raping, destruction of property. It was inherent in the ethnic-cleansing operations and population transfers between India and Pakistan, which were carried out to make Pakistan an ethnically ‘pure’ Muslim state. However, historians concur that there was comparatively little tangible violence compared to the amount of alleged violence – to the amount of violence there was rumoured to have been. In other words, it would suffice that an armed group destroy one village, and kill or terrorise its inhabitants for the rumour of that destruction, terror and violence to spread to hundreds of villages whose inhabitants would then flee, lest they too fall victim to that same violence, rumoured to be so dreadful…
It has now been abundantly documented how, during the 1948 Arab-Jewish war – which led directly to the founding of the state of Israel on the land of mandate Palestine, and to the fact that there are now some five-million Palestinians who live in refugee camps in the surrounding countries – panic rumour was broadly used by the Israeli militia to bring about the mass-scale evacuation of the civilian Arab population. The so-called new Israeli historians have amply documented this long-denied stratagem, analysing and cross-checking testimony according to which loudspeakers mounted in the back of Israeli jeeps broadcast information in Arabic about impending mass violence and retribution if the civilian populations did not abandon their homes and villages. Thousands of people heeded radio messages – deliberately and misleadingly attributed to the Arab League – advising them to leave their villages, believing the rumour that the Arab armies would soon arrive to restore order allowing them to return to their farms. A massive population transfer was thus brought about both through the threat of violence and the rumour of actual rather than through real violence. The emptying of Palestine of the vast majority of its Arab population came at the cost of thousands of deaths – relatively few, given the scope of the military operation undertaken.
I mention panic rumour here not because it reveals rumour’s ugliest face but because it provides the clearest example of rumour’s eminently ambiguous community-forging power. It is above all in India that historians from what is known as the subaltern school have looked at rumour’s potential for mobilising crowds and sparking mob violence. Indian philosopher Veena Das has described rumour as a particular form of subaltern communication. I have said that rumour appears to be characterised by its indeterminacy – its basic anonymity and lack of identifiable source – but subaltern historians have focused on rumour’s capacity to build community. In their view, in other words, there is something particularly active rather than passive about rumour. Philosophically, this allows us to observe an interesting duality within rumour as a speech act. On the one hand, we can say that rumour possesses what philosophers of language term an “enunciative” aspect; and on the other, that it has a “performative” aspect. It is enunciative in the sense that it is narrative and describes or tells something; but it is performative in the sense that it makes something happen – it brings something about in the world. It is its performative dimension that makes rumour a potential medium for terror; its performativity results in its contiguous spreading, in the almost irresistable impulse it instils in listeners to pass it on to someone else. But the images of contagion implicit in both Morin’s and Knapp’s characterisations of rumour, typical of how rumour is represented in elite discourse (and more generally in our increasingly expert culture), do not so much reveal those author’s non-comprehension of subaltern forms of communication, as their deep-set foreboding as to language’s inherent violence. A fear that rather than remaining domesticated, language may have a propensity to being communicable, infectious, and corrosive of both the source of speech and the trustworthiness of all convention.