If you don’t like pretentiousness, look away now

Threads of Identity 3 - detail
Threads of Identity 3 - detail

This is the blog of an academic quilter, and I really do use my quilts and textiles to think about issues in my work.  I draw on the work of several continental philosophically inflected thinkers, and they are very often concerned with the role of language in shaping our everyday lives.  We are imprisoned by our inadequate language, because we cannot think outside it.  In a sense we can only experience what we have a word to describe.  So, love is a good example.  We have one word, really, that has to cover all sorts of love and is clearly inadequate for the job.  Hence the jokey phrase, the Greeks have a word for it.  They did.  Eros, agape and so on describe different kinds of love.  So there is a problem if you want to write about experience that you only have the words you have and they are not up to the task you want them to do, but you have to use them because they are all you have.  One attempt to signal the inadequacy of language to capture and re-present our experience in a written text is to do something typographically on the page – to write the word with a line through it, to show that this is what you allude to, but it isn’t the whole story, the word won’t do, but it’s got to be employed if we are to have any hope of doing or saying anything.  The word is on the page and crossed out, showing it will have to do because we have nothing better.  So, you could talk about femininity. This would signal that you are using the word fully aware that it describes a state of being which is not captured by a sign on a page trying to encompass a feminine experience which cannot take account of all the forms of femininity in the world and those yet to be invented (and not constrained by patriarchal practice).  The technique is known as putting a term ‘sous rature’ or ‘under erasure’.  The term originally comes from Heidegger but was used extensively by Derrida.  It is a way of deconstructing the text, showing the process of language.  I am quite interested in this, because I am interested in the sensory or aesthetic, where you often can’t quite describe what is going on.  Seeing a piece of art is has an effect which is difficult to describe but which you know you feel.  Benjamin had a go at working out what we mean when we describe a work’s aura, for example, but that word doesn’t quite do it.  The idea of ‘sous rature’ isn’t about not quite being able to put your finger on something, but about a word not quite being able to encompass all the possibilities in an idea, but, I think it’s a fascinating idea.  How do you signal the impossibility of accounting for what we experience and how we form our identities?

On top of this, I am interested in how using textiles can expose some of this.  I work in a world where numbers matter and are held to be true, even though we all know that statistics can be manipulated.  We trust them because we trust what we can count.  But,  numbers only tell you what they are not so good on why or how.  I try in my textiles almost to make models of how we know what we know in the world (epistemology).  Knowledge is partial and gets obscured and painted over.  So the cloth and to some extent the stitching in this piece is ‘sous rature’ – there but obscured.  Derrida used the technique to show the simultaneous presence and absence of meaning.  It’s there but it’s not there.   We get glimpses of the cloth but we can’t really see it, although we can see enough of it to reconstruct it in our mind’s eye.  The cloth is definitely there, but it’s not there because you can’t see it.  This is difficult stuff, but what I want to draw attention to is how we are formed by a language which has very limited capacity to describe how we feel.  Trying to understand what it is to be feminine without going to stereotypes of Barbie dolls is hard, we have what Audre Lorde might call ‘supplied’ terms which limit what we can be.  This clogginess is what I am trying to get at by placing my stitching under erasure.

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4 thoughts on “If you don’t like pretentiousness, look away now

  1. Your artistic aesthetic and how it influences your thinking and your work is very interesting. I like to read your posts. There’s a depth and context to them that goes far beyond the usual in the blogworld.

    Derrida.. a long time since I read his work on language, I remember my young self being thrilled by the questions he poses. And now, well, my brain cells need a good shake every so often.. even on a Friday morning!.

  2. I can’t make up my mind about Derrida. Genius or charlatan? But, he is fascinating. And I’m glad you find the posts stimulating. I have just been doing a book outline – well, I’m in the middle of it, and I am amazed how much stitching can model thinking. Whether it will ever get a publisher is another matter! Ann

    1. Fascinating, definitely. I studied language and literature when post-Derruda fanaticism was in vogue. ‘textuality’ was interpreted as ‘text-only’. I don’t think I bear the scars now, but it did take a while to heal.

      Stitching modelling thinking.. pause for thought. Stitching as structure perhaps, or stitching as a channel of communication. Not a structure that limits and inhibits, but a creative one that liberates.

      Good luck with the book outline ~Fiona

      1. The model idea comes from a student of mine, who made me think that maybe it is a way that I model the world for myself – that is do my sensemaking through cloth and stitch – as well as cerebrally, of course. It’s nice to have another option other than re-representation, and one that doesn’t involve one of those irritating hyphens.

        Glad your recovery is coming along well. I have always preferred Barthes. At least he’s funny. Ann

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