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“I” AM NOT THE SAME AS “ME”
(excerpt from Twin Figure of Mimesis)
Technically, the imagery seems simple. Through the medium of a low tech B&W video camera on a tripod, the artist—a woman with short hair, in her mid thirties—looks at me, or, rather, into the camera. The image scrolls vertically a couple of times before it calibrates, finds it balance and stops. Then, the woman points at one of her eyes: “This is my right eye.” Then the other: “This is my left eye.”
The shot expands to a split screen, showing two versions of the same image: the woman in medium closeup and a flipped image of just her head on a TV monitor; her two heads next to each other in the same size, one “original,” one copy. She looks slightly downwards, probably at the position where the monitor is actually placed, watching the same copy of herself that we are seeing in real time. Then, she lifts her arm, points at her eyes one at a time and says: “This is my left eye. This is my right eye.” The left and the right eyes of the “original” are the same as they would be when seen from my perspective, and in the “copy” they are mirrored (which is a bit weird actually, as since I am face to face with the “original,” it should be the other way around.)
The perspective goes back to the single close up shot. Again, the image scrolls vertically, suggesting that, just like the first image, what we are seeing is probably not an “original” image but the “copy” of the monitor image that both the woman and we were watching in the previous split screen shot. The woman looks down at herself in the monitor, raises one finger and—looking into the monitor—points at the camera lens in the position where the top of her finger meets her right eye in the image on the monitor; she then moves her other finger and points at the same eye on her “real” face: “This is my left eye.” She repeats the same manoeuvre with the other eye: “This is my right eye.”
In the next sequence I find it difficult to make out how the imagery is technically produced. Again it is the split screen with both the half figure and the close up in the monitor, but as the woman lifts her arm to again point at her eye, I see the “real” arm as if I was standing behind her position, looking at her in a mirror and the monitor. Maybe that is how it is done; there is a mirror and a monitor next to each other, and the camera is standing behind her right shoulder, filming both her mirror image and the monitor showing the filmed imagery in real time. Looking at the monitor image, she carefully directs her “real” arm so that her finger covers the eye in the mirror image, and then points with her other finger at the same eye of her “real” face: “This is my left eye.” Then she changes hand and repeats: “This is my right eye.”
The image goes back to the close up; now without the initial scrolling, it seems like the camera is filming the mirror, without the doubling of the monitor. The woman turns around, so we see her head from behind, and holds up a small mirror, reproducing the closeup image of her head, and again points out of the right and left side of her face. She then turns back, looks at the camera through the semi-transparent mirror for a brief moment, and then separates her face in two halves by holding the mirror as a divider between her nose and the camera. She slightly changes the angle of the mirror, still based at her nose, so that we now see a version of her face produced by a doubling of her left half. Her one eye looks up at “us,” doubled through the mirror: “This is my right side.” What happens here is a small revelation of sorts; the figure of a face produced by the mirroring of one half representing both left and right looks both very familiar and really weird. When she squints her doubled eye, the image of her face is comic and uncanny at the same time; realistic and unreal. It is a deconstruction of the face by means of aesthetics, making the idea of identity and original impossible in one single gesture.
This video piece, Left Side Right Side, was made by Joan Jonas in 1972. Jonas had started as a sculptor in New York in the 1960s, and from there moved into a territory of mixing performance and mediated image. She had a close relation, both aesthetically and personally, to the movement of minimalism, sharing the conceptual lucidity and repetition of shapes and figures. But the performative aspect adds a multilayered sensitivity to the work.
I think Left Side Right Side is a remarkable piece of work; so simple, minimal, intelligently reflective, and sensuous at the same time. With a couple of very simple tools, Jonas performs a thinking in practice, a performative reflection on a number of basic and central concepts of origin, identity, and representation.
What becomes apparent through the doubling and mirroring of perspectives through the repetitive investigation of left and right, culminating in the uncanniness of the face produced by a self identical doubling of its own half, is the impossibility of the very concept of identity. If not even the left and the right halves of my own face are identical to each other, then clearly all identity is a construction. (And then how can I claim an identification between my self and something outside of this non identical self?)
The work also points at the difference between representation and representativity. It is not an artwork “about” identity. It is not “about” anything. It takes place only as its own action, and this performativity produces an experience in real time. It is not a gesture representing an experience outside of its own context or framework. The performer Joan Jonas does not perform an act that is a representation of a subject or of agency; the act is representative. She produces experience on behalf of the audience, not “showing” us a representation of a prefabricated experience, i.e. experience as fiction and commodity. She acts, instead, as the agent of the audience, engaging us in the production and sharing of both physical and mental experience.
"Why would the problem of identification not be, in general, the essential problem of the political?"
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Transcendence Ends in Politics
The double figure produced in the mirror and monitor in Left Side Right Side actualises an interspace dwelling between the ego and the self. In various shapes and formations, this gap within the subject reappears in the writings of Immanuel Kant and Hannah Arendt.
One could picture this as a split appearing in the act where I go from a state of pure being to the active mode of thinking. The thinking process thus would simultaneously constitute a coming into being and a dividing of the self; where, as the active exodus from “pure” existence, thinking is an act of “silent dialogue” inscribing my consciousness within a linguistic system, fixating it to a specific frame of time and space, thus separating me from my self.
This line of thought has similarities to Jacques Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage and the imaginary. Lacan describes the moment when the baby—by means of a mirror or some other symbolic imagery of itself as a cohesive image—becomes conscious of its own autonomous being, its own identity as a unity separated from the rest of the world. The creation of an autonomous, conscious identity simultaneously produces, in both cases, a separation: a splitting of continuity, a slight latency or echo lingering between consciousness and thinking, being and image, subject and object.
I’ll stay with this topic because I think that our culture’s fixation and dependency on identity and identification, both as universal tools for subjectivity and as inherently positive values, is increasingly problematic. Whether we’re talking about politics, social relations, or artistic quality criteria, the definition and affirmation of identity is at the core of the process. And we most often talk about it as something natural; presupposing the idea that the identity is rooted in the authenticity of an origin.
But identity is always a construction; nothing in this world is identical to anything. A1 never equals A2, identity and identification always means assimilation and appropriation: the understanding of A1 on the conditions of A2, or vice versa. In one sense, the whole world could be said to be a system of mimetics: a constant repetition of forms, figures, rhythms, relating to each other as resemblances and differences. With the concept of identity—the slight shift from similarity to sameness, driven by the desire operating in the double bind of likeness and difference—mimesis gets inscribed within a hierarchy of assimilation and appropriation, of proper and improper, in a dramaturgy that connects desire and violence familiar from passionate love stories, xenophobia, gender war and colonisation. The true force behind our fear of the foreigner is not that he is alien. It is triggered by the fact that he is similar to ourselves—too similar to not be the same. The similarity de-stabilises the authenticity and cohesive unity of my own identity, blurs its borders and framework. The fear of the foreigner is not the fear of the alien that provokes my repulsion and rejection, it is the anxiety of the uncanny, the thing that resembles me without being me.
Mimesis, the similarity of a double or copy, is an interconnection between proper, im-proper, proper-ty and ap-propriation. The desire for difference connected to the Other and inherent to the dialectics in which identity is produced, is simultaneously the violent force of assimilation. The final product of a society focusing on identity as its main political and aesthetic tool might arguably not be the promised multitude of different subjectivities, but rather the indifference of infinite sameness.
In Typography, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe writes a fascinating and sometimes jungly journey through a landscape that could be described as a genealogy of western hermeneutics. It is a cultural archeology circling around a number of linguistic and ontological concepts, a minutious and puzzling patchwork, wherein Lacoue-Labarthe simultaneously de-attaches and reconstructs a structural legacy of thought, from Plato via Heidegger, in which notions like Figure, Gestalt, Seeing, Idea, and Knowledge interact in endless, entwined feedback loops.
I find the complexity of Lacoue-Labarthe’s approach to the notions mimesis and fiction very interesting in relation to performative practices. It complicates the critical reflection on representation and signification, and reveals to what extent my earlier critique of mimesis and fiction as inherently negative phenomena was embedded in a paradigmatic dualism inherited from Plato, which understands the world thorugh a narrative of hierarchical oppositions like original/copy, reality/fiction, proper/improper, true/false. This perspective of the world, emanating from Plato’s idealism, has in its centre a hierarchical relation between the copy and original, where the double only is validated in its relation to the original—to the “truth.”
Perhaps we have some basis for suspecting that “Platonic psychology” is in fact a “psychology” of desiring rivalry, of the endless reciprocal hatred implied by the very stuff of desire itself—precisely by its mimetic nature.
The origin of desire is mimesis—mimetism—and no desire is ever forged that does not at once desire the death or the disappearance of the model or “exemplary” personage that gave rise to it. This is why, for Girard, “mimesis meets violence and violence redoubles mimesis.” The law of desire is that of reappropiration, of “recovery” from the primitive alienation that governs it. Desire wants difference and autonomy, the proper and property; it is the very will to decision: the Same (identity, identification, undifferentiation) is its terror and the evil that gnaws at it.ii
Mimesis is complex because it is simultaneously a promise and a threat. The mimetic gesture is a separation of the world from itself, the basic speculative condition that opens reality up to fantasy, reflection, and negotiation. But, for the same reason, the double/copy/image is a threat, since it destabilises the proper order of things and of subjects, and ultimately even the cohesive unity of my own subject. Mimesis is the questioning of my identity’s identity with itself, of the proper version of my self; facing its mimetic double, the proper of my subject is no longer a stable category in the world, it is no longer its own property. It renders me open to the world, at the risk of my self dissolving in the world.
This opens for a reversal of my initially rather dogmatic critique of mimetic processes. The fact that I originally understood the whole concept of mimesis in a representational tradition, where the mimetic double automatically is expected to represent an “original” in reality, makes it (embarrassingly) obvious how deeply my idea of imagery and symbolic systems is rooted in a representational regime of western art, where aesthetics automatically are valorised in relation to their commodified function of making images of reality, rather than as part of a sensory apparatus connecting me with the world.
Seen from the perspective of the contemporary situation—in which the public realm has been erased by an economy based on the private commodification of all commons, a totalitarian monopolisation of all modes of production and resources; a transition of power and discourse justified by the narrative of capitalism’s final victory over all other perspectives on reality, subsuming all image-production into the apparatus of the universalisation of its own self image as immanence, whereby the present order re-produces itself as re-presentation of presence—in this situation, mimesis could provide a central tool.
Or, as Lacoue-Labarthe puts it, “The ‘question of mimesis’—which comes from a dizziness, an uneasiness—is, in effect, nothing other than the question of the ‘subject.’ Or rather, the obsession with the subject. What is threatening in mimesis is exactly that kind of pluralization and fragmentation of the ‘subject,’ provoked from the outset by its linguistic or ‘symbolic’ (de)constitution.”