Displacement or The Poetic Functions of Dislocation

Mark Gisbourne

This reminds me of something, where did I see it? This is a common turn of phrase that shapes many of the contents of our representational daily life. Recollection and association are so fettered to the practices of the visual arts and culture that at times we think they could almost replace them. »Everything in life is memory, save for the edge of the present.«1 The images seen and the various associations recalled have come to excessively saturate our living world. But an image or the essential experience of it is never seen twice in the literal sense of the first discovery of an immediate representation. It may be seen again in fact many times over, and this is certainly the case in today’s contemporary culture of mass reproduction. But what might first appear as the commonplace condition of »seeing again« or facile recall, is fraught with any number of ambiguities, since what is being seen is never quite exactly the same in either a temporal or aesthetical sense. There are the obvious and definitive temporal moments of the first experience of an image, but thereafter come the layered temporalities of memory and recollection that are reenacted in processes of seeing again. While the image previously seen is obviously the same yet somehow its apparent sameness has changed. How can this be so? Most modern theories of memory and recall, of recognition and identity, are largely embedded in theories of neuroscience and cognitive studies.2 But this reduction to the principles of simple brain chemistry as mere mechanism is increasingly being contested today by emerging arguments within what is called neuroaesthetics.3 These argue that the neuro-synapses of the brain and active consciousness are changed by continuous interaction with repeated forms of representation expressed in terms of communication and visual information. This is to say that the human brain and by extension the mind as consciousness, is somehow being sculpted by images through the continuous experiences of repeated representations. However, the neuroscience aspects are not what I primarily wish to discuss, but rather the question of the extent to which a viewer reads an image as a representation, and in what ways viewers are themselves read by the processes at work at the time of their visual engagement. This is particularly relevant with works of art that are purportedly made to become objects of study, since subjectivity masquerades as analytic objectivity when it is in fact determined by what is often revealed about the viewer, rather than by that which the art work can objectively be said to express. The art historical addiction to older associationist or comparative tendencies, wrapped up in what it calls iconography and influences, has left the contemporary discipline in a meaningless state without a stable method of analysis.4 In short in a state that is completely at odds with how knowledge is produced in the contemporary world. In fact the old Wolflinian argument of compare and contrast, or Riegl’s ideas of Kunstwollen: »An artistic will or urge or intent informing different period styles«, seem totally irrelevant to how contemporary artists produce works of art today.5 Also, at the same time, much of the subsequent psychologism of the generation (Panofsky and Gombrich, and others) that followed these founders of art history has become increasingly inadequate to explaining today’s extremely diverse and often unpredictable forms of artistic production.
In this context it requires us to think again about issues related to the topography and workings of memory and recall. Why memory? Because whether it is association-based or not, all forms of immediate recognition and identity are mediated through memory and recollection; the brain is not simply a filing cabinet. However, we are not speaking about what has been called the art of memory (ars memorativa) the historical methods used to establish different forms of memorisation (mnemonics), so much as the working of a process in its direct engagement with different forms of artistic image representations that we see each day.6 Any engagement with images carries a sense of either an explicit or implicit memory. The explicit memory is defined as engaging with conscious awareness made evident at the time of remembering, directly remembered images, based on experiences of information and/or previous situations. In short it is recollective in that it makes itself explicit by the immediate sense of conscious and extended awareness that accompanies it. Implicit memory is perhaps more subtle, insomuch as it is evocative though the evocations sometimes appear random and non-intentional when initially experienced.7 To familiar readers of Proust this is often referred to as »involuntary memory«, though it was first scientifically observed by Ebbinghaus in the late-nineteenth century.8 It is involuntary only to the extent that what is made present is an unexpected evocation that cannot be connected to an immediate situation or source, apparently unconscious promptings that bring forth a palpable sense of immediate presence. While the separation in descriptive terms remains intact, in the realities of modern neurological and cognitive science these two conditions that prompt remembering are somehow though never securely linked.9 Both explicit recollection as recognition and implicit evocation (involuntary memory) are bound together in specific if not immediately verifiable ways. Though they function differently as mechanism (as verified in contemporary experimental science) there are points where they interfold and coalesce.10 Regardless of the still debated status of their distinction or non-distinction, what is without question is that memory and the processes of recollection are always concerned with different interacting aspects at work in our daily temporal experiences. Thus the asymmetrical nature of memory and recollection has, perhaps, always undermined the linear temporality of time and space, whether mental or physical, since remembering is being continuously re-orchestrated through each instance of the act of remembering. The familiar or traditional mode of temporality is a linear procession of past, present, future. But as the world has become increasingly synchronous, strange ruptures have begun to appear within the diachronic order of things. Art history itself, as it focuses on the temporal or earlier time-based production of images as representations of the world, has become increasingly problematic, since all its suppositions have been generally driven by the methodologies of the diachronic linearity of history. Similarly, with art criticism, whether merely descriptive, analytic, or ekphrastic, it is also often at a loss to locate a connective set of causes amongst the plethora of immediate visual sources available. The building of the order of images, the artist’s oeuvre, its developmental character and exposition, and the necessary epistemological criteria for the formation of artistic knowledge of ages past is increasingly destabilised. In the image-saturated multi-media world of today the changing parameters of cause and effect are beginning to displace and question all the conventional notions of causality – and, the concept of visual displacement whether for artistic or ideological purposes is a major, one might almost say, the central aesthetic of the times we live in. Hence a return to the origins of what is meant by recollection, recognition, and identification, coincides with a re-thinking not only of art history and criticism, but its historical relations to art and the psychological foundations that coincide with the first modern theories of memory.11
But there is a distinction between the retarded lies of memory and the truth of recall, and as Søren Kierkegaard predicted long ago the emerging modern world was one where repetition would replace the then conventional understanding of memory as recollection, »Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions; for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas repetition properly so-called is recollected forwards.«12 An idea that was philosophically expanded later by Henri Bergson’s view of remembering as repetition, »At each repetition there is progress ... again it will be said that these images are recollections, that they are imprinted on memory. The same words are used in both cases. Do they mean the same thing?«13 Gilles Deleuze, the modern exegete of Bergson’s thought on memory, clarifies matters further, »We have great difficulty in understanding the survival of the past in itself, because we believe the past is no longer, that it has ceased to be. We have thus confused Being with being-present. Nevertheless the present is not; rather, it is pure becoming always outside itself.«14 Hence it is not the original experience of the past but can still act or be useful, for the past has ceased to be so that its use value in the present becomes negligible. Such a position undermines the conventional causal links of artistic influence in the most conventional of art historical senses. The iconography and use of past images are therefore no longer the determinant criteria for understanding the images as representations that are produced today. The sources that artists use are no longer in a systematic causal chain of development whose outcome is shaped and inferred automatically from the derived sources. They must not be considered as simply further elaborations of what came before. It is surely one of the reasons why the conceptual baroque theory of the fold and monadology has re-entered contemporary art practices, particularly in the renewed field of painting.15 Kierkegaard not unsurprisingly perhaps cited Leibniz as a precursor in his prediction of the shift from recollection to repetition. How then can we judge images in the age of seeming infinite repetition and reproduction? That is to say, when putting aside the complex distinctions between singular and reproductive media. If the ubiquity of repetition is such that we can no longer ground an initial first cause or instigation of an image or representation, in what ways can we attempt to objectively analyse a contemporary art work of today? It seems we must argue in this new post-structuralist and destabilised world of images that we have now to think in terms of a greater self-reflexive form of analysis – self-reflexivity not only implying the reading, and continuous re-reading as seen, but also an analysis of the condition and site of ourselves at the time of reading the image contents. This is to argue that images read us as much as we read them, and that we can never be fully in control of the image or its eventual reading. It is »self« engaging with a material other, and while the »other« as object does not change in its material terms, the same cannot be said of the self that is continuously reading and re-reading it. If memory forms the basis of recollection as repetition, all contemporary images are a form of repetition or sorts. Walter Benjamin makes this clear in his theory of eternal recurrence (derived from Blanqui through Nietzsche), it is repetition carried forward, and not (or, could never be) a repetition of the same.16 The photograph incised from the world at a unique moment of time, becomes the image of the past the instant after it is taken. Seen again apart from its archival moment, which of course defines its moment of death, the image can only take its meaning from it state of its being currently present and is inexorably disconnected from the original ontological being state that it once possessed;17 in this respect it has become a posteriori displaced. Similarly, the painting passes from the maker, to the materials means used, to the thing made, to its first presentation, and finally to its state of continuous re-reception commonly called historiography. At each point the repetition is carried forward but can never be the same. Why? Because the self-analytical conditions or epistemological framework of whatever the reading may be considered to be is never contextually the same.
In speaking of a re-engagement with the morphology of memory and recollection, the actual shape and nature of remembering and recall of images, we have to think through the self-analysis or our relations to looking. It is no longer a question of »What do I see?« But what are those aspects that have foregrounded themselves in our state of consciousness at this time, and what effect have they had through the processes of looking at a representation. Since human consciousness is in a constant state of evolving and dynamic change, the self-analytical conditions of the relationship to images seen (or, seen again) remains in a state of flux. This does not prejudice what is seen but requires an excision from the viewing consciousness, and a clearer self-analytical attempt at analysing what these particular aspects objectively reveal. That is to say not the contents of the work that are specifically self-evident as obvious contents, but the contents of a viewing consciousness derived from viewing the art work. Clearly we are viewers that abound in and are inevitably drawn to associationist contents (images of memory and recall) that refer to our preexisting life experiences and to personal a priori knowledge. The consequence of this displacement, without the necessary self-analytical engagement, leads the viewer invariably into the dangers of determinism. It is often this determinism today that substitutes and creates bad art history through the arbitrary suppositions of linear cause and effect. However, this is not an argument for simply a retreat into descriptive or reductive formalism, but argues that the contextual analysis requires reflective distance brought about through the displacement of a viewing consciousness. It strips away the contemplative and passive viewing of art works in the first instance, and instrumentalises the self-revealing contents of a work of art. Indeed it does more than that since it is applicable to all representational imagery. In a synchronic age of mass imagery and repetition the danger is that their manipulated use shapes and determines the possibilities of a viewing consciousness – hence the »bread and circuses« effect of so much contemporary mass media imagery that saturates our world, the very thing that an aesthetical nature and judgment opposes. The philosophical notion of aesthetics is rooted not only in observational categories of the beautiful, sublime, ugly or comic, and which in any case only afford a generalised taxonomy, but are related to issues of meaning and validity through the different principles that validate judgment. And, such judgments are founded on a verifiable differentiation at work in the study of the mind and emotions in the relation to the principles that creative sensory categories of artistic identity. Now, while I am aware that that this simply sounds like a re-working of Kantian categories, it distinguishes itself from the founder of German aesthetics insomuch and he created his principles on the basis of contemplative detachment.18 In our all encompassing world of representational images such a sense of detachment is no longer (if it ever was) feasible. Indeed it can be said to have died with Husserl, the phenomenological thinker, who tried to bracket perception within the conditions of pure introspection.19 However, if Husserl, as the founder of phenomenology, was trying to establish an ontological category of »pure introspection« distinct and free from the arbitrary psychologism founded by Wundt, and turned into a psychological structuralism by Titchener, it has become increasingly obvious that such a state of pure introspection free of the context of the world around us is completely unrealisable.20 And, if we can never be completely detached from and shaped by the representational context that surrounds us, the best we can do is turn to the self-reflexivity at work in the situation of representational engagement. This is to say that our critical judgments cannot be drawn from detachment but from the self-analytical role revealed by displacement. As stated we are being read at the same time we are visually reading the image representation that is to hand in the given moment. In order to retain any sense of self-awareness it becomes increasingly imperative to acknowledge what is happening in the immediacy of any representational engagement. And, in the case of the evaluation of works of art this is of further significance, since contemporary representations have become increasingly manipulated by the purported materialistic and quasi-cultural values that are invested in them.
A return to a self-analytical engagement with issues of memory, to what unconscious motives determine recollection as repetition and recall, to the pre-existing associations commonly at work in our day to day consciousness, should not be the pursuit of the futile dream of pure states of introspective consciousness, but needs to be analysed through a reinvigorated method and process of reflection interacting with states of consciousness and instrumental displacement. However, in using the term »displacement« I do not intend its common psycho-analytical usage as articulated by Sigmund Freud, which is to say as a psychological defence mechanism that averts the mind from engaging directly with objects that are emotionally disturbing. Rather I intend, perhaps, what Lacan inspired by Jakobson’s linguistic analysis argued, namely that displacement (Verschiebung) has become a necessary divergent signification into the metonymic and metaphoric conditions that reveal a resistance to the structural determinism posed by language and images of representation.21 The use of metonymy that renames or defers the determinism of immediate contents (the contents and suppositions as inferred by the associationism embedded within the viewer), has the effect of not only establishing a poetic function but creates a space of reflection as regards what is actually being seen (or seen yet again). Similarly the use of metaphor while it functions as a self-aware figure of speech that utilises associationism for a specific purpose, at the same time exposes the determinist tendencies of association at work in today’s forms of representation. A metonym or metaphor are by their actual use an expression of intentional displacement. But metonymy and metaphor are not to be used as a substitute (or an escape route) from the realities of content, but as mechanism that exposes and brings into view the true nature of what has been seen for the purposes of clarification and analysis. It is a reflection just as the mirror displaces the reality of the person or object that is seen in it. We may know that it is a distortion of reality, but that distortion can only be revealed by looking in the mirror. Hence a scrupulous analysis of the space between the contents seen, and a self-awareness of the viewing consciousness seems an essential corollary in an age of synchronicity where pictorial boundaries are in a continual state of manipulation or obfuscation. While »displacement« as initially described has been understood as a internal mechanism of the unconscious, there is no reason why it cannot be used to gain greater understanding of the function of displacement tendencies within the viewing consciousness. The tendencies of inhibition and/or convenience offered by the easy thrill of immediate causal association have now to be challenged at every turn. Its relationship to memory and recall (explicit or implicit) are self-evident, since the basis of our association is rooted in the accumulative processes of a priori recollected experiences. On this basis we might begin again to establish a substantial method and means to engage with art works that draws upon synchronic and polymorphic conditions found in the images and representations created by the contemporary art of today.

Sunday, 11 September 2011


1 The quotation is from Michael Gazzaniga, Professor and head of SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California. See: Jonathan K. Foster, Memory. A Very Short Introduction, Oxford 2009, p. 2.
2 See: Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, Cambridge, Mass./London, 2000; also Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Motion, and the Making of Consciousness, London 2000.
3 Deborah Hauptmann and Warren Neidich (eds.), Cognitive Architecture. From Biopolitics to Noopolitics. Architecture and Mind in the Age if Communication and Information, Rotterdam 2010.
4 This is witnessed by the countless interdisciplinary borrowings from other areas of social science and cultural theory over the last thirty years. See Jonathan Harris, The New Art History: A Critical Introduction, London 2001; also Julian Bell, Mirror of the World: A New Art History, London 2007. A basic primer that was instrumental in engaging with the new interdisciplinary approaches was A.L. Rees, and Frances Borzello, The New Art History, London, Camden Press, 1986.
5 Margaret Iversen, The Concept of Kunstwollen. Alois Riegl: Art History and Theory, London/Cambridge, Mass. 1993, p. 6.
6 Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, London 1966).
7 Jonathan K. Foster, ibid, pp. 41-42.
8 Hermann Ebbinghaus, Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology, Eng. trans., H.A. Ruger and C.E. Bussenius, Dover, N.Y., 1964.
9 For an understanding of current extensive theoretical language and definitions as to systems of memory, see: Jonathan K. Foster and Marko Jelicic, Memory: Systems, Process or Function, Oxford 1999.
10 See: Daniel L Schacter, Memory System Cambridge, Mass./London 1994, and Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, London/New York 1997.
11 Endel Tulving and Fergus I.M. Craik (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Memory, Oxford/London 2005. This magnum opus constituted of over seven hundred pages gives the complete bibliographical history of researches into memory.
12 Søren Kierkegaard, Recollection is a discarded garment, Uwe Fleckner (ed.), The Treasure Chests of Mnemosyne; Selected Texts on Memory Theory from Plato to Derrida, Dresden 1999, p. 128.
13 Henri Bergson, Of the Recognition of Images, Matter and Memory, New York 1991, p. 79.
14 Gilles Deleuze, Memory as Virtual Coexistence, Bergsonism, New York 1991, p. 55.
15 Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, London 1993.
16 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Cambridge, Mass./London 1999, pp.25-26.
17 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, London 1982.
18 See: the first part of Critique of Judgment, where Kant foregrounds the principle of contemplative detachment or disinterestedness as the primary consideration for forming aesthetic judgments on works of art.
19 Edmund Husserl established his idea of »bracketing« (epoché, as later used by Merleau-Ponty) in the years before the first World War; see: Logische Untersuchungen and Ideen.
20 Wilhelm Wundt is considered the founding figure of experimental psychology, and he was the first to establish psychology as a distinct social science. Edward B. Titchener was a student of Wundt and developed the idea of structural psychology (he claimed from Wundt's experimental system) through the establishment of the psychology laboratory at Cornell University in the United States.
21 Jacques Lacan, The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason Since Freud, in: Ecrits: A Selection, London 1998; it establishes Lacan's understanding of the relationship between condensation and displacement.