Category Archives: philosophy

A history of madness

“UFO” by astraverkhau is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

I remember reading Derrida take issue with Foucault. It was about madness, funnily, and the founder of deconstruction asked how it was possible to bear witness to insanity, The essay was ‘Cogito and the history of madness’, and while much flew over my head, I was struck by the humility with which Derrida showed to take on Foucault and critique his former teacher.

It was a long time ago. I was 28, 29 years old. Derrida was at first utterly incomprehensible to me. Then eventually I got to grips with some of his thinking. It was on an MA course in critical theory at the University of Sussex and it gave me a lot of confidence, to engage with deconstruction.

My former teacher was Professor Nicholas Royle. It was the first year he led his module on Derrida and much of the course formed the basis for his book on Derrida in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series. My cohort are all there, in the acknowledgements together. It was a very generous act by our former teacher. But if Derrida describes himself as a disciple of Foucault, that is surely what we were in a way and for a while: disciples.

I should probably keep this quiet and any Derrida expert reading this could probably deconstruct this post in no time; but I’m no longer so convinced about what I learned about my strand of Derrida.

My dissertation was on madness and much of it revolved around a phrase which appears in an interview from the collection Points; Derrida says “A madness must watch over thinking”. That is to say, we should not allow our decisions to unfold by reason alone because to do so would render our lives too mechanistic. That way danger lies and, yes, we should avoid an excess of reason.

But to inform a decision with madness? I must now be honest; it seems a bad idea. Madness, to my mind, is choosing cigarette brands according to religion. Or believing you can tune into radio stations on your teeth. That sort of thing. It should not watch over thinking. Emotion should inevitably watch over thinking, but emotion is not madness and I no longer subscribe to the idea that madness and emotion are on a sliding scale.

Madness is not an absence of reason or an excess of emotion. I think the mad have plenty of reasons for most of what they think or do. And I don’t believe they are any more passionate than those of us above ground. And yes, I do think one can bear witness. You can witness madness by observing the barefoot guy picking through the trash outside the shopping centre. You can observe it by reading Judge Schreber, or even Swedenborg.

Swedenborg was in contact with aliens, apparently, while remaining one of Earth’s first rank philosophers. Derrida asks, with what I recall seemed like alarm at the time, in his essay Passions: an Oblique Offering, “How is a Swedenborg possible?”.  How indeed? This is a profound question, and it indicates that Derrida’s understanding of madness has its limits. As does mine or yours. But you would not want aliens to watch over thinking.

Plastique Fantastique, Impossible Diagrams

What to make of a flicker between a bandaged head and a face carved in a brieze block. Or an unshaven mouth which hi-jacks a news report. Or self-immolation illustrated as if for a kids’ book.

Quite a bit happens in the Plastique Fantastique show at Grey Area. Not all is easy to describe and even less is easy to interpret. The entertainment above is on a reel called PFTV.

On this channel a masked and spangly demon pops up, curses us, and with a voice garbled-by-vocoder intones: “There is not and never has been anything to understand.”

It transpires Plastique Fantastique are into the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. The love of nonsense and invention of mad schemas with which to overlay reality may come from there.

So a nearby video installation breaks down PFTV content into idiot-proof diagrams. Captions such as “You taste the object/ The object tastes you,” are still stupefying.

Still, you should never dismiss the incomprensible. Two Plastique Fantastique performances, documented here, the ritual punishment of a victim by a band of futuristic savages.

Hanging the man from his feet may be aim at inverting the status quo. But if not, these scenes still feel urgent and deep in meaning. It’s a feeling; there may be no point understanding it.

Impossible Diagrams is at Grey Area, Brighton, until May 29. See gallery website for more details.

Nancy Spero, Maypole: Take No Prisoners II (2008)

Nancy Spero Maypole: Take No Prisoners II 2008 Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (3 March – 2 May 2011) © 2011 Jerry Hardman-Jones

Antonin Artaud only wrote one play, said to be impossible to restage. So we might now find the best example of the writer’s so-called Theatre of Cruelty at a Nancy Spero show

Certainly, the only performance of Spurt of Blood which this blogger ever witnessed would be difficult to review. Shouts, cries and physical convulsions don’t bear much repetition.

Spero’s fascination with this French writer is well known. Her current show at Serpentine features some 25 works which quote from him or name him in their title. This work, however, does not.

But Maypole: Take No Prisoners II does come to mind after reading the following quote from French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in which he calls for festivals with nothing to see:

“Plant a stake crowned with flowers in the middle of a square; gather the people together there, and you will have a festival. Do better yet, let the spectators become . . . actors themselves.”

So perhaps a gallery, where the visitor is surrounded by the action, where Artaud’s writing is screamed from the walls, is in some ways the antidote to classical spectacle Rousseau proposed.

Both writers seem keen to get away from theatrical representation. And Spero, while providing theatre in the above work, gives voice to her muse’s radically incomprehendable scream.

Btw, the quotation is from Letter to M. d’Alembert, which is briefly discussed by Jacques Derrida in his essay The Theatre of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation in Writing and Difference.

For a more in depth discussion of Spero’s use of texts by Artaud in relation to Derrida, there is an interesting essay by Lucy Bradnock available here.

Maypole: Take No Prisoners II can be seen in Nancy Spero at Serpentine Gallery until 2 May 2011. See gallery website for more details.

Alfredo Jaar, The Marx Lounge (2010)

You won’t find a more accommodating piece of art than The Marx Lounge. The sofas are as comfortable as they look. The walls are a warm shade of red. The light is perfect for reading.

Then there are books. Some 1,500 paperbacks are stacked on a central table, which means the room is designed to fit the population of a medium sized village. Sofa space will be at a premium.

By reading full time, it is just possible you could get through all the different titles in about five years, but the work is on display for around 10 weeks. Clearly this lounge is more extensive in both space and time than it might at first appear.

The topics covered, from a broadly Marxist perspective, include economics, philosophy, history, psychoanalysis and above all politics. Alfredo Jaar has spoken of this as a “tsunami of thinking”, which has been taking place over the last 20 or 30 years.

But everything about the place is an invitation to relax and let the theory sweep away everything in its path. This expansive lounge feels safe and well built, a good vantage point, or a place to soak it in.

The Marx Lounge is part of Liverpool Biennial 2010: Touched, the International Exhibition. It can be found at 52 Renshaw Street until 28 Novermber 2010.

Preview: Tom Pope – The Escapades of the Higher Man

Tom Pope, The Escapades of the Higher Man, 2009. Courtesy Glynn Vivian Art Gallery

Exhibition: Tom Pope – The Escapades of the Higher Man, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, until April 18 2010

Having foreseen the coming of the Higher Man, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had, surely, grand deeds in mind. He could not have predicted a photographer from Bristol would come along and try to catch a bucket of water.

Tim Pope has also leapt from stupid heights and disguised himself beneath a pile of rubbish in the street. It seems that now God is dead, the Higher Man is free from the shackles of reason.

Photographs provide the evidence. Pope has set up some real events with reactions from real passersby. And yet these deeds are also staged, a comment on photography as much as the writings of Nietzsche.

“Employing performative strategies within my photography sees the record of an event and the event itself form a creative dialogue,” the artist has said.

“The resulting performative photograph encourages the viewer to invent meaning resulting from a blurring of fact and fiction.”

In other words, any response to these shots will be subjective. So this may indeed be the Higher Man. The rest of us just might not recognise as much.

The zany self-portraits were taken in Marseille in 2009 and now provide emerging talent Pope with a first major solo show in the city where he first studied art.

Review: João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva – On the Movement of the Fried Egg and Other Astronomical Bodies

João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, Colombo's Column, 2006. Courtesy of the artist and Galeria GraçaBrandão, Lisbon.

Exhibition: João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva – On the Movement of the Fried Egg and Other Astronomical Bodies, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, until March 21 2010

After representing Portugal in Venice at the 2009 Biennale, João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva have pitched up in Birmingham for their first UK solo show.

In near total darkness at Ikon the walls flicker with their grainy 16mm films. The whirr of projectors only deepens the silence.

Nothing distracts from your consideration of the loops of footage. So when an egg yolk slides into a pan, it carries the weight of an astronomical body, as promised by the show’s title.

Given the apparent age of the film, you feel anything could happen. The movies look to have come from the vault of some museum or research institute.

Indeed, many are structured like formal experiments. One man tries to stack eggs. Another appears to eat glass. A rigid body is impossibly suspended between two chairs.

According to the Lisbon-based pair, these are pieces of “poetic philosophical fiction”. The set ups are designed to explore philosophical and mythical ideas, many of them esoteric.

So the fried egg questions the ancient belief in Atomism. The stacked eggs illustrate an anecdote about Christopher Columbus. Falling water in slow motion plays around with Plato’s Theory of Form. Yet all are treated to a reduction ad absurdum.

They even seem to question their own means of investigation. One voluble Brazilian uses a hole in the sole of his boot as a viewfinder or a telescope as if to cast doubt on all forms of epistemology.

In a later film, we find him chasing a brick which slides away from him through the dust. It is tempting to see this as a metaphor for all of the scientific researches in the show.

Along with film, Gusmão and Paivis write and compile texts for their own periodical, Efflúvio Magnético. Magnetic effluvia, in case you were wondering, is the cosmic force which impels the earth’s winds and waves, as mentioned in The Man That Laughs by Victor Hugo.

Most comic of all is a film in which five men gather in a clearing, smear themselves in dirt and take turns drinking from a giant pitcher which ends up inverted on one of their heads. Now, he too is ready to explore the darkness.

Written for Culture24.