Taking up analytical theorist and painter Bracha Ettinger’s argument that it is the destiny and desire of artworks to be interpreted, this paper explores the concept of ‘encounter-event’ as a model to move beyond the restrictive dichotomies of word and image, verbal and visual language, object and text, and into the politics of difference via an understanding of interpretation as a collaborative activity solicited by the artwork as an event that precipitates an encounter with difference and thus extends the viewer, rather than instructs them, in given scripts of cultural meaning.

Louise Bourgeois, 'Cell (Eyes and Mirrors)' 1989-93

Fig.1 Louise Bourgeois
Cell (Eyes and Mirrors) 1989-93
Marble, mirrors, steel, and glass
unconfirmed: 2362 x 2108 x 2184 mm
Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 1994© The estate of Louise Bourgeois

View the main page for this artwork

The great twentieth-century sculptor Louise Bourgeois died on 1 June 2010 aged ninety-eight. Her first retrospective in Britain took place a mere three years ago. Over seventy years old before she received art world recognition or international fame as a ‘must-have’ for collectors and major museums, the reception of Louise Bourgeois’s work has been disfigured, however, by the ease with which the hungry interpreters consumed the life story that the artist had apparently flaunted in front of them, as if autobiographical memories provided the key to the interpretation of her work. The story of what Bourgeois called ‘Child Abuse’ seems to have suspended further exploration of what her work was doing.1 Instant explanation provided by a childhood trauma rehearses the classic romantic belief that art originates inside its subject and is expressed, however obliquely, in art, existing there as content to be decoded with a single unifying explanation; in other words, artworks form an indirect portrait of the artist.

The conflation of artistic subject and artwork is theorised as intellectual or artistic intention, but the only artist for whom this operation dignifies their practice is the unmarked subject – the white straight man. If you are a woman, the linking of art and life is merely reductive. The same model functions inversely, with the artwork being treated as the unconscious leakage of femininity from the sexed body or psyche. If the artist is a marked man exploring an othered identity resulting from ethnicity or sexuality, the ‘stain’ derails hetero-white masculine self-determination and their art also becomes devalued for dealing, not with art, but with biographical otherness.2

This approach, whether it positively or negatively locates meaning in the artist as valued, universal author or as particularised partisan, overrides an understanding of art as practice and process. Rather than finding out what art is about – a project leading back to the artistic subject in whom it is thought to originate – we need to ask what artistic practice is doing and where as well as when that doing occurs. What are art’s occasions and temporalities?

A distinction should be made between the time it takes a painter to paint the picture (the time of production), the time required to look at and understand the work (the time of consumption), the time to which the work refers (a moment, a scene, a situation, a sequence of events: the time of the diegetic referent, of the story told by the picture), the time it takes to reach the viewer once it has been created (the time of circulation) and finally, perhaps the time the painting is. This principle, childish as its ambitions may be, should allow us to isolate different ‘sites of time’.3

To the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s many ‘sites of time’ I want to add the timelessness of trauma. Far from being a past source from which imagery is generated, a reductive diagnosis found in the literature on Louise Bourgeois, trauma is rather the non-thing not yet-experienced towards which a lifetime of making art might be unknowingly journeying.4 If trauma is ever encountered, its traces risk a secondary traumatisation, unless the gesture of its becoming encounters a receptive discourse to structure it. Witnessing – hospitable participatory responsiveness – is a reciprocal act allowing the offered trace to be processed in the encounter with and by an ‘other’, whether the other be an individual or a culture. Hence in the case of Louise Bourgeois, her most extraordinarily inventive period after 1982 was not a response to delayed art world recognition but, I suggest, it registers the coincidence of her own artistic gesture with a feminist-infiltrated cultural moment concerned with the sexual, the body and psychic life that sustained her gesture as art, that supported certain kinds of investigation materially, technically and symbolically and that provided a frame of intelligibility that had perhaps been missing up to that moment. Thus the culture of the feminist moment sustained a series of artistic leaps that radically exceeded the modernist principles of sculptural form within which Bourgeois had been working more or less successfully. Once there was a specifically feminist and a specifically post-conceptual space in culture for the uncanny – the surreal in a novel form – the interrelation of object and space in the emergent form of installation, and the use of freighted materials and a narrative voice, Bourgeois’s aesthetic imagination exploded and the Louise Bourgeois after 1982 is a different artist compared to the Louise Bourgeois of the 1940s–70s, despite there being obvious thematic continuities that run throughout her oeuvre. Thus I suggest we can read in her work not the prison house of the traumatic past, but the temporally sensitive, creative passage from trauma to aesthetic witnessing. This is far from the therapeutic idea of art as expression, expulsion, ejaculation, release, and all the other obviously phallic metaphors by which an inside (the artist’s personality or intention) becomes an outside (a formalised and semiotic artwork). Trauma, around which all genuine art hovers, and in which art is generated in the unforeseenness of its event that we experience as aesthetic shock or effect, whatever its causes, requires an entirely other, matrixial account of the interface of sexuality, sexual difference and the aesthetic. Bourgeois’s challenging and perplexing practice serves precisely to incite interpretation and reinterpretation of its inexhaustible potential through recurring wit(h)ness encounters.

Writing as both an artist and an analyst-theorist, Bracha L. Ettinger declares that it is the destiny of artworks to be interpreted. She formulates the inevitable connection between subjectivity, initially the artist’s, and the Symbolic, the field of meaning, in ways which at first echo Julia Kristeva’s notion of art as the semiotic transgression of the Symbolic order. But Ettinger goes further.

Artists continually introduce into culture all sorts of Trojan horses from the margins of their consciousness; in that way, the limits of the Symbolic are transgressed all the time by art. It is quite possible that many work-products carry subjective traces of their creators, but the specificity of works of art is that their materiality cannot be detached from ideas, perceptions, emotions, consciousness cultural meanings, etc, and that being interpreted and reinterpreted is their cultural destiny. This is one of the reasons why works of art are symbologenic.5

Ettinger presents art as a kind of gift, packaged in its own materialities that are at once spurs to perceptions, feelings and thoughts as well as connections with existing cultural meanings. This gift is also an event, inviting and inciting the receptive culture to work with it. The concept of the event is central to Ettinger’s theoretical shifting of psychoanalysis from a focus on the object to the significance of a shared trans-subjective occurrence. The event initiates the foreseen that has resonance beyond the individual subject. Event in general parlance involves both a gathering and an occasion and the word, used of art, reminds us of both the interaction between different sites and moments of subjectivity and the shared experience, of the gathering of reciprocal responses. Interpretation, then, is not the exhaustive definition of what art is and where it comes from but is instead an engagement to work with it as a gift-event, that in doing something, brings about change in the culture itself: it generates new meaning. Ettinger then continues to elaborate how a radical change in culture can occur so that the gift-event is not merely renovative transgression, that happens all the time through any aesthetic-semiotic activity, but may challenge the very Symbolic order itself from a subjective, but always culturally-determined otherness that becomes a creative resource. She is using a Lacanian vocabulary in which the Symbolic is the locus of words and thought, and is also the determining law of culture according to which we become both speaking and sexed subjects. It is the deep unconscious of what the subject is as a cultural speaker. The Real is what is beyond the reach of both the signifier and the image, the tool of fantasy or in Lacan’s terms, the Imaginary. It is the undifferentiated that happens to us, but which we apparently cannot know (symbolically) or imagine (through fantasy). It is identified structurally with trauma: the event that impacts upon us but of which we can have no knowledge. Ettinger writes:

Artists inscribe traces of subjectivity, Oedipal or not in ‘external’ cultural/symbolic territories (i.e. artworks), and by analyzing these inscriptions, it is possible to create and forge concepts which indicate and elaborate traces of an-other Real and change aspects of the symbolic representation (and non-representation) of the feminine within culture. From time to time the artist’s gaze is suddenly split and we find ourselves in the position of observer-interpreter. I see the inscription of oneself in the Symbolic and the recognition of one’s own desire through the Symbolic as inter-related, self-organizing, continuous events. I believe, therefore, that the Symbolic must be penetrated by women even if choosing one name/concept will be considered phallic. In that way, alternative ideas, deviating from the Phallus, may enlarge the text of culture.6

Thus, it is not as a woman that the artist changes culture and brings into it new possibilities; it is instead achieved through working as an artist on these margins, opening passages from other unthought dimensions of subjectivities and sexual difference into a transformed realm of cultural meaning. In the case of feminism, this means challenging the phallocentric domination of the Symbolic and shifting or expanding its potential for supporting other, different, differencing meanings and subjectivities.

French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche has argued that there are at least four sites of psychoanalytical experience: clinical, extramural, theory, history.7 To this, I am going to add aesthetic experience. Resisting the idea of application of alien science to non-psychoanalytical domains, Laplanche argues that psychoanalysis leaves its clinical analytical sphere ‘in order to encounter cultural phenomenon’ and to do so in a situation in which psychoanalysis is already a symptom or a mode of analysis that marks us all, after the ‘event’ of psychoanalysis as a practice, discourse and theory, because since Freud, we are now psychoanalytical beings.8

Psychoanalysis is obviously one of the formalised and modern cultural sites of interpretation. It is also an incompletely explored and contested resource for aesthetic theory. From the moment of Freud’s Traumdeutung, translated as the Interpretation of Dreams, published in November 1899 but identified with the century’s turn in 1900, interpretation became a process of negotiating not merely the inherited opposition between word and image with its grand rhetorical traditions of ekphrasis and Lessing-type evaluation of literary versus the visual representation. It offered a novel means to trace the multi-levelled interplay of different, yet interrelating registers of image and word on which occur the subjective processes of producing meaning and becoming a subject in a world infused with, yet resistant to particular, orderings that we call meaning: conscious and unconscious, as well as Imaginary and Symbolic, repressed and censored, fantasy and thought.

Neglected by subsequent psychoanalytical trends, dreams along with jokes, parapraxes, neuroses and artworks were key sites of interpretative activity for Freud. Before Freud, the interpretation of dreams had followed two hermeneutic paths. Symbolism made the dream a foreteller of the future by allegorising a truth to come. A second model involves decoding: the dream is treated as the holder of obscured meaning that merely requires a key to unlock. In radical contradistinction, Freud proposed a specific and dynamic level of psychic work, which he named ‘dream-work’, thus insisting on an economy, which worked on what he called dream thoughts.9

Because of the constitutive split of subjectivity by the unconscious, censored or repressed wishes figure as dream thoughts. That means that dream thoughts are the object of interpretation but they have been transformed. Form is the key element of this word so that interpretation has to analyse the logic of the dream operating through processes of condensation and displacement of the dream thoughts into a manifest content that can be remembered and reported by the speaking, waking subject even without apparent comprehension. The manifest content becomes available to the conscious subject to recall after waking and to narrate with some coherence, but without understanding of the meaning of the logic underpinning the conjugated elements, even while the remembered mood of the dream state still bears the affective halo of the dream thoughts. Repudiating both symbolism and decoding, Freud defined a new project called interpretation that is a work of analysis that focuses on yet another new concept: weaving. He writes: ‘Work of analysis is […] to unravel what the dream-work has woven.’10

Freud is not talking about extraction or translation, decoding or explication of symbols. He proposes a collaborative project of interpretative work that mimics, but in reverse, the production of the dream as a rebus. At once invoking a textuality that is not writing, and the interlinear patterning of a textile’s many threads, Freud’s image of the woven dream still has a productivist ideology.

British post-Kleinian analyst Wilfred Bion advanced beyond and challenged Freud’s modernist conceptualisation of the dream by putting pressure on Freud’s key concepts: ‘dream thoughts’ and ‘dream-work’. Bion suggested that we needed to analyse dreaming itself as a psychological operation that testified to the internal processing of emotional experience into thought while it also indicated precisely what the subject could not thus transform: a resistant residue. Thus, according to Bion, dreaming is itself an interpretative activity. Bion moves us away from residual notions of interpretation of the dream as unconscious wish-message and leads us towards understanding dreaming as the attempted processing of undigested psychic events, indistinguishably internal and external, and of encounters, into thoughts patterned by the mind’s own interpretative work.11

Bion’s emphasis may offer something akin to French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche’s somewhat later reformulation of the foundations of psychoanalysis. Laplanche proposed that the psychic apparatus of subjectivity is incited by the traumatic necessity to metabolise or translate the enigmatic signifiers that impact on the infant’s sensate and fragile receptivity to the world of already formed speaking, gendered and, above all, sexuate subjects whose ‘unconscious’ transmissions the infant encounters without yet having the mechanism to process what traumatically impresses itself upon it. These key enigmas have to be digested and are translated initially into primal fantasies. These primal fantasies, according to Laplanche, circle around that which makes the most ‘traumatic’, indigestible impact: sexuality.12 Questions arise in the infant to which primal fantasies are a kind of attempted answer: where do I come from? And sexual difference: What shall I become? Why are there two? But both Bion and Laplanche, while re-excavating archaic, pre-Oedipal moments of primordial subject formation – which have profound legacies in and as the aesthetic realm which co-emerges with sexuality and sexual difference – never challenge the determining of both of the above through the Oedipal structure. They leave theoretically unchallenged the heteronormative, familial, phallocentric narratives of the two key questions: who am I, and what is sexual difference? That is why I am interested for feminist and queer theoretical purposes in the Ettingerian contribution to psychoanalytical, but non-Oedipal, aesthetics and interpretation: debates which hinge between clinical theoretical sites and the extramural site of art.

The text by Ettinger I cited above performs a double intervention into the current museological and critical debates about interpretation of artworks as we encounter them in the exhibition space. To what extent is attention to suppressed, repressed, excluded or censored meanings and meaning-making processes, notably associated with the feminine in a phallic Imaginary/Symbolic, intimately related to the fumbling towards something ‘other’ in contemporary aesthetic practices which we now encounter as invitations to something more than semiotic decipherment? Why do we turn away from the earlier models of cultural analysis, and why does contemporary art itself seem more susceptible to affective encounter instead of ideological communication?

Interpretation is not itself a static issue; the ‘liquid modern’ artistic practices which we currently encounter through various chaotic curatorial attempts at showing, if not mastering the riot of competing novelties are themselves neither fixed nor without their own historical indexicality.13 They are telling us something about the psychic formations of our current socio-economic world. We undertake this questioning furthermore on shifting grounds shaped by historical pressures operating according to the contradictions between linear and monumental temporalities elucidated by the literary theorist Julia Kristeva in 1977. Linear time, she argues, is the Enlightenment time of progressive and national histories that privileges the story. Monumental time, on the other hand, is closer to archaeological time and relates to long-standing mythopoetic human engagements with life and death and hence the reproduction of the species, as well as the individual, which modernist thought, in the form of psychoanalysis, reclaimed under Enlightenment science as a theory of subject formation.14

Using another Ettingerian psychoanalytically-informed concept of event-encounter that has its own resonances with the very differently grounded Deleuzian invocation of the Spinozan affectus and ‘encounter’, we can move away from the deadlock of word and image, verbal and visual language, object and text, and into the politics of difference and into the concept of interpretation as a collaborative work solicited by the artwork when, as an event in time, its mediation between subjective sites of production, circulation and consumption, precipitates a potentially transformative encounter with difference. Refusing dispassionate and disembodied objectifications, such a move results in an ethical-aesthetic complex that opens onto art – but not all that bears that name – as transformation. If dreaming is an internal processing and attempted transformation, a genesis of meaning through experience, I think we can posit what I am calling the aesthetic event-encounter as another similar kind of auto-interpretative working: the economy of what Ettinger names artworking, except, in this case, the day-dreaming is co-poetic; it is collaborative and cultural.

As a complementary working (I invoke here the deep Freudian concept of the psyche as economy rather than contents) Ettingerian Matrixiality is then a partner-in-difference with the poiesis that artworking itself seeks to perform on behalf of the culture from which it stems and within which it moves. The individuals involved are bearers of multiple traces and also have the potential to process that which is not their own – thus breaking with the classic concept of the phallic and the bourgeois subject as autonomous and proprietorial. Thus the artist carries her own traces of histories through family and culture, channelling consciously as well as unconsciously many remnants and shared histories. The same is true for the viewer. Many strings are woven across time and space in the event-encounter with which all parties are resonating as well as working to bend affective vibration towards communicable understanding.

Furthermore, according to Ettinger the potential for such artworking is entirely non-Oedipal, and hence non-gendered. Oedipal structuring forges us as masculine or feminine according to our encounter with figurations of Father and Mother. Ettinger has theorised relations with difference that are not determined by this triangulation but are nonetheless sexual in so far as they can generate potentials for desire, ethics, compassion and other inter- as well as trans-subjective effects and responses. I cannot stress sufficiently the difference between thinking within a phallocentric model in which we are either man or woman, and in which encounters are modelled on active/passive and all the effects of having/not having, and the matrixial model in which there is difference but not modelled on difference between man/woman, +/-, either/or. In phallic thought you are either fused or separated, one or thousands. In matrixial thought such binary oppositions do not function. Instead, matrixial thought seeks out the shared borderspaces in which differentiated but co-affecting and co-emerging subjective elements encounter and change.

In her theses about an even more primordial initiation of subjective encounters and processing in later prenatality/prematernity that distinguishes human becoming, Ettinger proposes a structure for understanding the transmission of affects and the modes by which they can be processed into thoughts by being ‘structured’, that is formulated, formalised, made syntactic by different economies of working. This structure of trans-subjective event-encounter and what Ettinger calls primary severality does not replace later inter-subjective and even autistic moments of post-natal subjectivity that are necessary for our insertion into the binary language systems of the Symbolic. Thus, the resources for the aesthetic encounter are placed on a ‘sub-Symbolic’ register. This is not a pre-symbolic register that is familiar from other feminist interventions such as Kristeva’s. It is not merely prior, as in the Kristevan psycho-semiotic narrative with its maternal chora, abjection and entry into the Symbolic as a necessary and linear trajectory. What Ettinger supposes is a constant psychic potentiality, generated in every becoming human subject from their humanising sojourn with another prenatally, that can be transformed at any later time into thought – but by means of images and signifiers. And processes. Even in its sub-symbolic form, however, such a capacity predisposes us to a specific experience that we can call aesthetic: namely something other to us, that brings about a transformation of our inner worlds by gestures of transformation and responsiveness.

During the 1990s many cultural analysts became momentarily enthused by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas’s idea of the ‘unthought known’, and the idea that the aesthetic, where we experience being moved by poetry, art or music, represents our adult longing to re-experience the archaic transformations that took place in our inchoate infantile inner worlds through the aesthetic of maternal handling.15 Ettinger’s thesis is far more radical.

Ettinger does not derive her theory of the aesthetic from a regressive fantasy of caring mother and helpless child. Far more structurally, she proposes a primordial condition of human subjectivisation that occurs through the prenatal/prematernal partnership that she reads as an encounter with an intimate otherness that co-poetically shares an event that alters each partner differentially. Asymmetrical but shared, there is no becoming mother without the becoming child and vice-versa. We should not think of the maternal body as an asubjective container growing a foetus that only becomes a child on severance from this baby-cooker. Ettinger imagines a different set of potentialities seeded into human subjectivity by the paradox of unknowable difference at the very core of co-emerging subjectivities: difference and co-affection are indissoluble partners in the formation of this dimension or potentiality in human subjectivity which she names matrixial, which is later subordinated to the post-natal and phallic conditions of subject/object relations, without ever being entirely knocked out.

Where Lacan and his followers, thinking about the Real, came to theorise an unthinkable, unimaginable Thing that precedes the object, and for which the object, like a vase, becomes the form around its traumatic void, Ettinger proposes to add in Thing-Event, and Thing-Encounter, that catch up, for the most archaic moments of emergent subjectivity, the sense of human otherness that is unknown and unknowable but which is none the less affecting and which is going to feed into later post-natal capacities for co-eventing and encountering, rather than using objects as substitutes for missing Things. Nothing is communicated as a content; but a processing is solicited and initiated precisely in the absence of the conditions of communicable equality. This is how we might now understand Ettinger’s proposition, quoted again here:

It is quite possible that many work-products carry subjective traces of their creators, but the specificity of works of art is that their materiality cannot be detached from ideas, perceptions, emotions, consciousness cultural meanings, etc., and that being interpreted and reinterpreted is their cultural destiny. This is one of the reasons why works of art are symbologenic.

I do not ascribe human capacities to things. Thus art objects do not think, nor have affections, nor do they want things of me. They cannot desire nor can they perform fundamental linguistic functions. Art happens to and through the encounters between subjective elements, even if objectively transmitted and materially supported.

Yet, I must also admit that it would be possible to argue a comparable case about human beings to whom we much more readily ascribe the idea of thinking, being affected and producing meaning. There was a time when theorists declared that we do not speak but are instead spoken by the impersonal grammars of linguistic and other signifying systems; and that we do not think but are thought by ideological operations determined in complex social formations and institutional frames. The museum was considered such an institution and thus subjected to discursive ideological and institutional critique, not only by cultural analysts, but also by artists themselves. Rather than asking what is to be interpreted, I pose the question who is interpreted as an interpreting subject by the event-encounter?

I have been working, extramurally, with the concept of the exhibitionary encounter, a concept dense with accumulated and contradictory genealogies. These allocate space for several elements: the artworks as material objects (but also as images and texts), the space of their arrangement and the phenomenological encounter with them, the participating visitor, viewer or agent of the encounter, the invitation to the encounter generated by one who has taken responsibility for the assemblage and the institutionalised occasion without imagining that his or her initiating proposition or criteria for choice and arrangements holds any authority. The invitation initiates the occasion for several lines of potential engagement and conversation between what is there, who is there, what is not there but could be, what will be done there and what the event will do. Performative and argumentative, invitational yet propositional, interventionist yet located within an institutional framing, the project is paradoxical and beyond reason as it must necessarily be if we are to function as critical, engaged, yet contemporary intellectuals negotiating cultural memory through things as the occasions of encounter as well as the memory of our own position as intellectuals. The key is to not be afraid: of unfashionable political integrities, commitments and habits of criticism. Why would we be afraid? Because, increasingly, consumption and pleasure determine what is good. The quality of entertainment rather than transformation is the only auditable outcome. Pedagogy, such as it is, is tailored to that mollifying end.

Interpretation, aesthetics and affect: legislation versus interpretation

I want to focus on three terms with contradictory relations that have been set in motion here.

Long, long ago, during the last conservative administration in 1987, ­sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s study of intellectuals tracked an historical shift from modernist legislators to postmodern interpreters.16 Modernity and post-modernity he argued mark ‘two different contexts in which the “intellectual role” is performed: two distinct strategies that develop in response to them’.17 The mark of the postmodern intellectual situation is the role of the interpreter: ‘translating statements, made within one communally based tradition, so that they can be understood within a system of knowledge based on another tradition.’18 Instead of the construction of a single order or defining the best order, interpretation ‘facilitates communication between autonomous (sovereign) subjects’ and contesting or co-existing paradigms. Bauman concludes that while the postmodern strategy involves abandoning the universalistic ambitions of the intellectuals’ own traditions, it does not, however, ‘abandon the universalistic ambition of the intellectuals towards their own traditions; here they retain their meta-professional authority’.18 As interpreters, we theoretically accept pluralisation of knowledge. Yet, as intellectuals, we psychologically persist in the habits of authorisation of knowledge, which sometimes takes the form of professional de-authorisation that makes knowledge seem impossible: an example might be the cultural theorist Fredric Jameson’s argument about theoretical disorientation in postmodernism where we appear to have lost the cognitive maps necessary for the negotiation of new spaces and temporalities emerging in late capitalist culture.19

Bauman’s picture is easily recognisable to us in art. The modernist orthodoxy dreamed of a single coherent order for art and hence an uncontested museological knowledge of art mapped out through an architectural sequencing. The postmodern challenge fractured this illusory unity into encampments of interested parties speaking of gender, class, the postcolonial, the queer, the disabled and so-on in complex and proliferating configurations that themselves become intricate patterns of hyphenation. But the intellectuals did not really know what to do with themselves in this shift and thus the grounds for critical operation were eroded under their cerebrally far-seeing feet.

We are, however, no longer postmodern. Even as symptoms of that fracturing condition, the initial territories of difference are now disowned by the liquid moderns as themselves having become too legislative. In his introduction to After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance (2005) the art historian Gavin Butt not only quoted Benjamin Buchloh’s lament that there was no longer any space of criticality at all in the market-dominated consumption that is the art world, but he registered a new generation’s impatience with theoretical paradigms that were becoming sclerotic; in other words, too old and tiresome to be productive.20 My sense is that the museum was always a modernist institution burdened by its variously endowed authorities to conserve a heritage, teach a culture and entertain a public. The challenge offered initially by postmodern interpretation and its displacement of legislation of knowledge was never really possible for the museum to integrate. Nervously, at the edges, theoretical challenges have been taken up through ‘education’ and other supplementary activities: conferences, symposia and networking where the competing communities of interpretative plurality could play at being intellectuals, that is, still enacting the illusion of a legislative authority even in this relativist circus. While thus enriching the institution and its publics by creating an intermediary space between gallery and academy, such educational operations have functioned productively, although the long term effect looks more like a management of the crisis which has increasingly slipped into fashion-chasing. Intellectuals become performers and the deeper arguments that have real implications and stakes are avoided for fear of creating unpleasantness or too much difficulty.

Far from this sociological analysis of the intellectual tradition and its histories, psychoanalysis offers a different proposition about interpretation. In analysis, interpretation was from the start dialogical, speculative, experimental, practical, and durational. Although it generated a theoretical corpus, psychoanalysis learnt its ways of thinking and interpreting through psycho-dynamic encounters in a space specific to it. Analytical space is inter-subjective space. It is a temporally uncertain space, amnesiac and mnemonic, and as we know from the photographer Edmund Engelmann’s shots of Freud’s study in Berggasse 19 in Vienna and from visits to the Freud Museum in London, these spaces were and still are filled with the enigmatic figurations of meaning, fantasy and affect in the form of objects, sculptures, engravings, fragments, and photographs. Psychoanalytical work is neither legislative nor interpretative in Bauman’s sense: analytical, the appositeness of any ‘reading’ of the runes of symptomology already translated into the rhythms of spoken word, eloquent silence and the ‘chattering’ body depends upon the ability of the analyst’s words to structure as discourse the non-discursive while also effecting a shift of internal psychic organisation with accompanying affect in the analysand. The therapeutic effect is clearly irrelevant to any but the clinical situation. The discovery of certain structures by means of which mediated otherness can cause transformation through echoing and differencing is, however, profoundly relevant to what we can think of as the aesthetic encounter as a space similar to but distinct from the analytical. Interpretative activity is occasioned because there is transferential potential accompanied by a will to assist the other into shared speech through the opening of bordered entities to become shared thresholds for movement between self and other, now and then. Such an opening requires the inter- and trans-subjective encounter that is at once what is present in the analytical/aesthetic space and what is conjured into presence from elsewhere in the many subjective and historical elements through transferential possibility. Both parties to the event are deposits and accumulations of histories and futures. Why futures? Because interpretation is a creative processing, as opposed to merely a reception of the readymade.

I am not interested in proposing psychoanalytical criticism, art history or museology as an interpretative strategy aimed, in the manner of decoding, at objects and their meanings or at the psychobiographical reading of the artist intended for pedagogic ends, thus falling into the postmodern delusion of a localised authority. Rather I am fascinated by what Jean Laplanche names extra-mural psychoanalysis, where the latter leaves its clinical analytical space to encounter cultural phenomena in specific historical conditions already imbued with awareness of desire, subjectivity, sexuality. There, its own existence as symptom and nosography marks us all as psychoanalytical beings, what Laplanche defines us as: self-theorising subjects. Artistic practice is precisely a locus and practice of self-theorisation, not individualistically but at once singularly and culturally invitational.

The psychoanalytical is not just one more theory in the marketplace of competing theoretical communities, but is introduced here as one of the signs of a particular symptom in contemporary cultural analysis of which I am both indicative and an analyst: that is, the affective turn.

The affective turn, named by sociologist Patricia Clough, following the linguistic and the cultural turns of recent times seems ripe for interpretation.21 This turn does not ask ‘what does it mean’ but instead questions ‘what is going on?’ What reconfigurations of our various dispositions towards the rationalising and systematising or towards the passionate, the pathos-ladened and the transgressive are being played out? For what socio-cultural reasons are such shifts taking place? While Fredric Jameson warned that in the postmodern affect was waning under the marketing conditions of surface appearance in late capitalism, Brian Massumi identifies our moment as super-saturated by affect: witness the loss of political self-understanding in the manipulated politics of anxiety mobilised by the war on terror.22 Trauma studies are another symptom of this paradoxically intellectual interest in its unspeakable other: the Real and its uncognised affectivity. But this must also be explained as the imprint of the historical and political real.23

Then there is the aesthetic turn, what I call aesthetics envy. Such a turn exists since even hardened Marxists and post-structuralists like myself appear to be prepared to engage with what was ‘outlawed’ and disowned forcefully when the ‘productive’ turn of the structuralist literary criticism and the social histories of art displaced the Kantian aesthetics then dominant in American modernist criticism and trampled heartlessly on the romantic yearnings of those who still longed for and believed in creativity. The increasing array of publications with aesthetics in the title, which surprisingly includes feminist aesthetics as well as aesthetics and cultural studies, are symptomatic of serious realignments. But what do they mean and how seriously should we take them? Are we just part of a trend, its symptomatic agents as it were, or is there space for a self-critical exploration of the modes in which we experience and think about culture and specifically that dimension of our encounter with certain kinds of experience that cannot be defined as rational or cognitive on the one hand or purely perceptual and sensuous on the other? In my admittedly limited understanding of Kant’s founding investigation into the aesthetic, the aesthetic is not a property of objects so much as an effect or disposition in the subject whose orientation towards what is encountered, either in a formed object or artwork or a natural phenomenon, can either be one of pleasured judgement or anxiety-induced conceptual activity, forced upon the mind by the encounter with that which threatens it, because the imagination cannot encompass its radical alterity. Thus, the sublime does not render us speechless and erased, but rather it stimulates the necessity for concept-formation. That is, the sublime, the otherness that agitates us because it appears to be unimaginable, generates interpretation.

My experience of art is closer to this sense of the sublime: in a typically Kristevan understanding of aesthetic practices as those which transgress systematicity – the already known – on behalf of the heterogeneity that normally renovates all systems of meaning, but sometimes revolutionises them, the artistic work is that which causes my imaginative store-house to be exposed as inadequate to the shock of the other and the unexpected. I am forced to seek a concept for it. Its excess to my imaginative capacity engenders language. The event becomes art because it produces the necessity for creative working through, seeking new concepts where no pre-existing ones will do. This is not the shock of the new in the trite and traditional terms of institutionalised avant-garde innovation along lines whose logic is laid out in advance within the critic’s system. Nor is it the novelty typical of consumer culture that confuses mere diversity with the radical difference of creativity in Deleuze’s understanding of difference and repetition:

Difference is not diversity. Diversity is given, but difference is that by which the given is given, that by which the given is given as diverse. Difference is not the phenomenon but the noumenon closest to the phenomenon. It is, therefore, true that God makes the world by calculating, but his calculations never work out exactly (juste), and this inexactitude or injustice in the result, this irreducible inequality, forms the condition of the world. The world ‘happens’ while God calculates; if this calculation were correct, there would be no world. The world can be regarded as the ‘remainder’, and the real in the world understood in terms of fractional or even incommensurable numbers. Every phenomenon refers to an inequality by which it is conditioned. Every diversity, and every change refers to a difference which is its sufficient reason. Everything which happens and everything which appears is correlated with orders of differences: differences of level, temperature, pressure, tension, potential difference of intensity.24

What we conceptualise as art is a moment of creative difference, difference as the shock of creative differentiation whose sources are not universal. The nature of the differentiation becomes radical according to the hegemony of the dominant mode of systematicity, in our case, of phallocentric, heteronormative, bourgeois, globalising capitalism.

Interpretation is thus not the application of a pre-given system to an artwork in order to maintain its function as the support of the system. It is the engagement with the working, the economy of a complex material, intellectual, sensuous, affective and social practice in which a medium functions as an intermediary screen between subjects generating a moment of potential trans-subjectivity. But art history in its academic and institutionalised museum form is, of necessity, the pursuit of knowledge in its traditional sense. It is a symptom of modernity’s belief in legislative understanding. Its institutions thus appear to be displaced by what used to be called criticism but which has little critical acumen. How are we to disagree now in liquid times? How are we to contest meaning when the very idea of critical contest is considered ‘sclerotic’? In the name of what shall we struggle to understand ourselves?

If interpretation is what artworks are destined for, it is not through that which the managerial modelling of curatorial authorship and institutional branding present as such.

Art does not move me qua the thing it appears to be in time and space. But in so far as there is an aesthetic encounter with otherness, and this is not predictable or guaranteed, there is the sublime occasion for me to feel addressed by otherness that incites conceptual work. In so far as there is an aesthetic encounter, there is an occasion for both projection and inscription, that which is materially deposited or organised as signifying elements, received on the register of the subjective as if an other, real, imagined, virtual, fictional, figured or indexed to be experienced as the other addressing me. I am engaged or fascinated or affected only in so far as something happens inter-subjectively for which the mediation is at once material and virtual. This may be misrecognised by investing the screen or carrier with human attributes, suggesting, as is the current fashion in some areas of object theory, that objects do things to us.

The literary theorist Roland Barthes’s self-assassinating author merely withdrew sufficiently to create the space for this co-emerging other in an aesthetic gesture that was by definition patricidal and queerly potentially feminist. Enabled by psychoanalysis, the artist also learnt to recognise ‘its’ own division, its non-unitary condition, its own inner otherness, the unconscious, its own occupation of several positions. Ettinger remarks:

From time to time the artist’s gaze is suddenly split and we find ourselves in the position of observer-interpreter. I see the inscription of oneself in the Symbolic and the recognition of one’s own desire through the Symbolic as inter-related, self-organizing, continuous events.

Artistic practice from the side of the producing subject is thus a double movement of inscription into a system of meaning that, like the Symbolic, is impersonal, shared, predetermining, and culturally defined. It is also the means by which something is returned from the unknown spaces whence the impulse arises to inscribe to the subject who can for the first time know something of that impulse, for knowing requires the spaced formality of language. The return from the Symbolic is not a simple act of recognition but is a cultural, communal one mediated by the manner in which the traces have been ‘interpreted’ by others.

The artist is thus made as such by several encounters and passages through otherness: those that are staged in the working/making, those that occur in the circulation and interpretation of the work through that which the aesthetic encounters opens up. Thus the absence of an adequate complex of historical knowledge, desire, and openness to the work of interpretation as the analysis of the dislocated art-thoughts and the artworking in relation to feminine otherness kills the artist as woman. The artist as woman is not the woman artist: Ettinger has argued that the artist is a woman in certain conditions of transformation of the phallocentric symbolic, independent of socialised gender or psycho-symbolic positioning.25

The aesthetic of which she writes, in a vein similar to the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, is a trace or legacy of archaic intimations of subjectivity that nestle in beside the archaic becomings of sexuality. But Ettinger alone has dared to link the aesthetic with an-other sexual difference and that even in its archaic becomings – the model proposed by Bollas – it is already inheriting a potentiality for the kind of borderlinking, the kind of fragilisation of frontiers and limits sufficient to allow the other to transform me without incorporation or repulsion, to allow a co-emergence that sustains difference while sharing in the co-creation and the co-poeisis.

I understand the implications of Ettingerian matrixial aesthetic theory, therefore, to be extremely helpful in transcending the dichotomies, the polarities and the reversals of later twentieth-century cultural theory as well as liquid modernity’s ceaseless search for the merely novel.

While museum educators carry out the prescriptions of the museological mission to pass on and inculcate the currently desired modes of consumption of art as information, cultural capital or entertainment, they have also balked at the radical disruption of nationalist Romanticism performed by social histories of art and Foucauldian discourse theory presenting the latter as anti-aesthetic. But neither of these extremes have either grasped the specific modernity of art and the emergence of the aesthetic as a domain not of judgement but of sociality and hence inter- or even, in matrixial terms, trans-subjectivity. Psychoanalysis as it was radically developed in the later twentieth century and then inflected with feminist transgressions of its recidivist phallicism is neither anti-social nor anti-discursive.

Kristeva placed radical artistic practices within her Marxist analysis of bourgeois culture by identifying the displacement of religion’s management of a psycho-semiotic excess and thus placed art on the side of atheism and self-knowledge. She could not, however, anticipate or explain the deeper link between radicality, criticality and sexual difference yet. Iconically, she could track the maternal from Bellini to de Kooning but not beyond. It is not surprising to me that it has taken someone who is also an analyst like Kristeva, but who is also an artist to make that breakthrough into seeing that what is the excluded and the managed is not the mother but the gift donated to all human beings by a primordial intimacy with the sexual difference of a sexual (but not experienced as gendered) feminine other from which the very possibility of transgression and poiesis arises. Ettinger writes:

I believe, therefore, that the Symbolic must be penetrated by women even if choosing one name/concept will be considered phallic. In that way, alternative ideas, deviating from the Phallus, may enlarge the text of culture.26

The point of interpretation, therefore, is not a fixing of meanings to artists, forms, iconographies or practices as occurs in the dreadful recurrent phrase ‘this work is about…’. It is a work of analysis that aims to enlarge the text of culture through the co-creation with the working of art of otherness which sustains plurality, and preserves some hope that there are domains yet to be known.

The aesthetic is not the packaging of consumption through the manipulation of desires for the passivity of being remade and pleasured in Bollas’s utterly perverse fantasy of art as the mother we perpetually seek as recidivist, passively affected infants. It is the ethical moment of encountering both the otherness of all subjectivity: its unconscious structurings and the otherness of all subjects through which I learn non-phobic partnership in difference. This will not change the global structures of unfettered capitalism, but it will not be entirely party to it. It incites an experience at the level of realising that what matters happens between subjects and not, as suggested by capitalism’s illusion, between objects.

Notes

  • 1. Louise Bourgeois, ‘Child Abuse’, Artforum, vol.21: 4 December 1982, pp.40–7. See also Anne Wagner, ‘Bourgeois Prehistory, or the Ransom of Fantasies’, Oxford Art Journal, vol.22, no.2, 1999, pp.5–23.
  • 2. The classic instance of this problematic can be traced in the responses of critics to the culturally diverse Whitney Biennale of 1993 curated by Elisabeth Sussman. For examples of critical reviews see Robert Hughes, ‘The Whitney Biennial: A Fiesta of Whining,’ Time Magazine, 22 March 1993, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,978001,00.html; Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Silvia Kolbowski, Miwon Kwon and Benjamin Buchloh, ‘The Politics of the Signifier: A Conversation on the Whitney Biennial’, October, no.66, Fall 1993, pp.3–27. For counter biographical readings see Anna C. Chave, ‘Minimalism and Biography’, Art Bulletin, vol.82, no.1, March 2000, pp.149–63; Vanessa Corby, ‘Don’t Look Back: Reading for the Ellipses in the Discourse of Eva Hess[e]’, Third Text, no.57, Winter 2001–2002, pp.31–42. 
  • 3. Jean-François Lyotard quoted in Andrew Benjamin (ed.), The Lyotard Reader, London 1989, p.240.
  • 4. Griselda Pollock, ‘The Long Journey: Maternal Trauma, Tears and Kisses in a Work by Chantal Akerman’, Studies in the Maternal, vol.2, no.1, 2010, unpaginated.
  • 5. Bracha L. Ettinger, ‘Matrix and Metramorphosis’, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol.4, no.5, 1992, pp.195–6.
  • 6. Ibid., p.196.
  • 7. Jean Laplanche, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, trans. by David Macey, Oxford 1989, p.11.
  • 8. Ibid., p.11–12.
  • 9. Sigmund Freud, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol.4, trans. by James Strachey, London 1953, pp.1–338 and vol.5, pp.339–625. Footnote added in 1925: ‘Now that analysts have become reconciled to replacing the manifest dream by the meaning revealed by its interpretation, many of them have become guilty of falling into another confusion to which they cling with equal obstinacy. They seek to find the essence of dreams in their latent content and in so doing they overlook the distinction between the latent dream-thoughts and the dream-work. At bottom dreams are nothing other than a particular form of thinking, made possible by the conditions of the state of sleep. It is the dream work that creates that form, and it alone is the essence of dreaming — the explanation of its peculiar nature.’ Vol.5, pp.649–50. 
  • 10. Sigmund Freud, On Dreams. Trans. James Strachey. New York 1952, p.114.
  • 11. J. A. Schneider, ‘From Freud’s Dream-work to Bion’s Work of Dreaming: The Changing Conception of Dreaming in Psychoanalytic Theory’, Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol.91, no.3, 2010, pp.521–40. 
  • 12. Jean Laplanche, Essays on Otherness, London 1999, pp.120–35 and 169–200. See also Laplanche 1989.
  • 13. On the concept that we live in an epoch of liquid modernity rather than postmodernity, see Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge 2000. ‘Liquid Modernity’ is characterised by relentless modernisation and change for its own sake, without any telos or destiny, and it is driven by the logic of consumerism. It changes our affective as well as material lives and bodies, indicated by ‘liquid fear’ and ‘liquid love’, terms which are also titles of Bauman’s continuing examination of this sociological concept. It has profound implications for understanding contemporary art and art cultures. See Griselda Pollock, ‘Liquid Modernity and Cultural Analysis: An Introduction to a Transdisciplinary Encounter’, Theory, Culture & Society, vol.24, no.1, 2007, pp.111–16; Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Liquid Arts’, Theory, Culture & Society, vol.24, no.1, 2007, pp.117–26.
  • 14. Julia Kristeva, ‘Women’s Time’, in Toril Moi (ed.), The Kristeva Reader, Oxford 1987, pp.187–213. 
  • 15. Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object: The Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known, New York 1989, p.17.
  • 16. Zygmunt Bauman, Legislators and Interpreters, Cambridge 1987.
  • 17. Ibid., p.3.
  • 18. a. b. Ibid.
  • 19. Fredric Jameson, ‘Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, New Left Review, no.146 (1984), pp.89–92. 
  • 20. Gavin Butt, ‘Introduction: The Paradoxes of Criticism’, in Gavin Butt (ed.), After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance, Boston and Oxford 2005, p.6.
  • 21. See Patricia Clough, The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Durham 2007; Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seidworth (eds.), The Affect Theory Reader, Durham 2010; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham 2002.
  • 22. Brian Massumi, ‘The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat’, in Antony Bryant and Griselda Pollock (eds.), Digital and Other Virtualities: Renegotiating the Image, London 2010, pp.79–92.
  • 23. For the strongest case that individual trauma is a mark of history see Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière, History Beyond Trauma, trans. by Susan Fairfield, New York 2004. 
  • 24. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. by Paul Patton, London 2004, p.280.
  • 25. Bracha L. Ettinger, ‘Weaving a Woman Artist with-in the Matrixial Encounter-Event’, Theory, Culture & Society, vol.21, no.1, 2004, pp.69–93.
  • 26. Bracha L. Ettinger 1992, pp.195–6.

Acknowledgements

This paper was first presented, with two other papers now published in Tate Papers 15, at the conference ‘Interpretation, Theory & the Encounter’ held at Tate Britain on 9 July 2010.

Tate Papers Spring 2011 © Griselda Pollock