Understanding Representation


Jen Webb

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    The author and publishers would like to thank the following for permission to use:

    Figures 0.1, 1.2, 1.3, 2.7, 3.4, 3.5 © Paul Travers 2006

    Figure 3.1 and 3.2 © James Webb 2005

    Page 14 T.S. Eliot, excerpt from ‘East Coker’ in Four Quartets © 1940 by T.S. Eliot and renewed in 1968 by Esme Valerie Eliot, reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Inc.

    Page 27 Margaret Atwood, excerpt from ‘This is a photograph of me’, permission granted by House of Anansi Press.

    Page 39 W.S. Graham, excerpt from ‘What is the language using us for?’, permission granted by Michael and Margaret Snow.

    Page 42 EE Cummings, excerpt from ‘r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r’ © 1935, © 1963, 1991 by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust. © 1978 by George James Firmage, from Complete Poems: 1904–1962 by E.E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

    Page 44 Walter Abish, Alphabetical Africa © 1974. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

    Page 68 Michael and Corinne White; for permission to use images at Figure 3.3

    Page 73 Primo Levi, A Tranquil Star, reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd. Translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli © 2007 by Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli. Used by permission of WW Norton and Company, Inc.

    Page 91 Thanks to Eddie Izzard for permission to reproduce material from Dress to Kill (1998).

    Pages 124 and 125 Thanks to Chaco Kato to reproduce ‘In a rainy room’ and ‘Migration’.

    Page 130 J M Coetzee, The Life and Times of Michael K, published by Secker & Warburg, reprinted by permission of the Random House Group Ltd. © J.M. Coetzee, 1983. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the Peter Lampack Agency Inc.

  • Conclusion: Representation and Ethics – the Problem of the Gap

    J.M. Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Life and Times of Michael K, raises the problem of the gap between representation and reality, and the effects that gap can have on the lived experience of individuals. It recounts the story of Michael K, a rather simple gardener from Cape Town, who leaves the city in a time of emergency and finds himself alone on the farm where his mother grew up. Cut off from everyone by his incapacity to understand other's representations or to make effective representations himself, he hides away in the country, as far as possible avoiding other people, and reducing himself to little more than bare life. The quote below comes from a scene where, while in hiding, he observes a group of guerillas arrive at the farm where he is living:

    K knew that he would not crawl out and stand up and cross from darkness into firelight to announce himself. He even knew the reason why: because enough men had gone off to war saying the time for gardening was when the war was over; whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once that cord was broken, the earth would grow hard and forget her children. That was why. … Between this reason and the truth that he would never announce himself, however, lay a gap wider than the distance separating him from the firelight. Always, when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap, a hole, a darkness before which his understanding baulked, into which it was useless to pour words. The words were eaten up, the gap remained. His was always a story with a hole in it: a wrong story, always wrong. (1983: 150–1)

    There are several gaps suggested in these lines. One is the space between ideology and existence – war versus gardening. Another is the space between two different values systems – political and existential (‘the idea of gardening’; the human connection with the planet). And yet another, the main one, is the gap between story and experience. He cannot find a way through the space between himself, a subject who has fallen out of representation, and everyone else, the bearers of political identity. Consequently narrative – or discourse – is insufficient for him: ‘His was always a story with a hole in it’.

    This ‘story with a hole’, the space between representation and existence, is the subject of this chapter. We have discussed in the earlier chapters the propensity of representation to constitute both us as subjects and the world in which we live. It is a system of production that is endlessly tolerant, in that it accommodates a vast range of often contradictory ‘truths’, but also entirely intolerant, because individuals must buy in to the system to have a recognizable social existence, and many people and groups of people can barely do so: they do not meet its criteria. What this implies is that something utterly central to representation is social identity, and that beyond its logics, its techniques and its history is the story of how it is used to make social reality, and how we might analyse the frameworks it sets around our world.

    Mikhail Bakhtin explains this with reference to language, writing:

    Discourse lives, as it were, beyond itself, in a living impulse toward the object; if we detach ourselves completely from this impulse all we have left is the naked corpse of the word, from which we can learn nothing at all about the social situation or the fate of a given word in life. (1981: 292)

    Similarly, to study representation as an idea or thing, rather than as a process in use, leaves the analyst with little but ‘the naked corpse’ of representation. This raises the question of representation as a process: what can our understandings of representation permit? How can knowledge of its workings, be used to craft a better situation for people?

    Bakhtin again stresses the importance of building understandings of the generative structures in which we live, pointing out that ‘the better a person understands the degree to which he is externally determined, the closer he comes to understanding and exercising his own freedom’ (1981:139). ‘Freedom’ itself is, of course, only a representation, but one with enormous capacity to drive discourse, and one that carries an enormous weight of value. In this chapter I will explore the idea of being able to think through the limitations imposed by the terms of representation at any given point in history and culture, and to strive to stretch the boundaries of society so that individuals can more easily be accommodated, and on terms of greater equity. After all, as Gilles Deleuze writes, ‘Representation no longer exists; there's only action – theoretical action and practical action which serve as relays and form networks’ (1972: 206–7).

    Action or Simulation?

    We can read this as stating that the problem with representation is that it does not provide presence, only abstractions. Since all human action involves something concrete, this means there is a gap between how we articulate a situation or problem – an event – and how we address it. The event comes to one's attention in ephemeral or amorphous form – as a representation. To attend to it, we must perceive it as a concrete thing, and take concrete action – perform an act that addresses the event. And then that act itself will take on meaning as representation. It will add to the weight of empty signification that makes our reality for us.

    The emptiness of representation is of signal importance here, because it designates a space in which there is some elbow room. On the one hand we have concrete reality which, as I have discussed in earlier chapters, cannot be contained in any system of representation. On the other we have representation itself, that which is not real, and yet is much more ‘real’ to us – because it is both accessible and the terms of access – than the ‘real world’.

    The theorist perhaps most closely associated with this gap, this impossible connection between reality and representation, is Jean Baudrillard. In his famous book Simulations (1983) he lays out his theory of this problem, and describes the absence of any ‘natural’ connection between referent and representation. What this means, for Baudrillard, is what we have seen in earlier chapters: that no sign means in and of itself, or connects directly with any ‘real’ thing, but rather has meaning only in context – only in relation to other signs, and not to reality (1983: 32). Central to this, he writes, is that the real does not come first, for us. We do not look at the world ‘out there’ and come up with representations that frame what we see. Rather, the representations come first – what he terms ‘the precession of the simulacrum’ – and these representations ‘produce’ the world for us (1983: 3). Arguably the technological developments over the past years have made this increasingly relevent. As Baudrillard again (and more recently) writes, ‘Modern technologies … are no longer so much extensions of man, as McLuhan used to say, but human beings are now becoming rather, a kind of extension of the logistical system’ (2001: 289). Which is to say, the context itself precedes our experience of that context.

    This is a well-worked field. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for instance, wrote ‘we see it as we interpret it’ (1958: 193); and for Jean-Luc Nancy, it is ‘not a world nor the world that takes on figure, but the figure that makes world’ (1993: 29). For philosophers generally, meaning is not actuality; it is simply a matter of how signs are juxtaposed, and so ‘truth, reference and objective causes have ceased to exist’ (Baudrillard 1983: 6). Reality itself does not exist (or rather, does not exist for us outside the domain of representation): ‘for reality is a principle, and it is this principle that is lost’ (Baudrillard 2002: 28). This is not to suggest that there is nothing in fact outside the sign; but that human beings are incapable of experiencing that ‘outside’. We both experience, and anticipate our experiences, through mediated forms: through the telling of other experiences, through the arguments presented in the mass media, and through contemporary ways of making sense. These are the simulacra that ‘precede’ the real and make it available to us, only as mediation. He writes that this is the case even for acts of violence:

    all hold-ups, hijacks and the like are now as it were simulation hold-ups, in the sense that they are inscribed in advance in the decoding and orchestration rituals of the media, anticipated in their mode of presentation and possible consequences. (1983: 198)

    Not everyone would share this perspective; for most commentators, it seems, terrorism always comes unanticipated. Certainly I, and most people, were surprised by the events of 11 September 2001 – who could have anticipated that? And yet the media very quickly found ways of delimiting it, of reducing it to a spectacle, and of bringing it into a sense-making structure (we stand for freedom; they hate our freedom; therefore they attack us). This is not, again, to suggest that something singular did not happen on 11 September. Derrida also commented on that attack, though he did not go as far as Baudrillard in separating the event from its representation. For Derrida:

    The ‘impression’ [of the event] cannot be dissociated from all the affects, interpretations, and rhetoric that have at once reflected, communicated, and ‘globalized’ it, from everything that also and first of all formed, produced, and made it possible. The ‘impression’ thus resembles ‘the very thing’ that produced it. Even if the so-called thing cannot be reduced to it. Even if, therefore, the event itself cannot be reduced to it. The event is made up of the ‘thing’ itself (that which happens or comes) and the impression (itself at once ‘spontaneous’ and ‘controlled’) that is given, left, or made by the so-called ‘thing’. (2003: 88–9)

    The event resembles its representation; the representation resembles the event; they are not identical with each other but they exist for us hand in hand. The representation allows us to make (some) sense of what is going on, but we can never really experience it in all its fullness because it belongs in the realm of reality, that which is always other to us, the subjects of representation. The point here is Deleuze's point, quoted earlier: that once we understand the terms of representation, our task is to take theoretical and practical action. What we choose to do, and why, is something that can only be answered by contemplating the question of ethics.

    Representing the Wrong

    For many people of the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the most egregious example of ‘wrong’ theoretical and practical action, of negative relays, is found in Nazi Germany. Its leaders are represented in history (as indeed they should be) as among the very worst. ‘We all’ know that Hitler was a monster, the SS were demons, the Goebbels were icy brutes, and so on. Fair enough. And most of the narratives we have of the Second World War, and especially of the Nazi management of Germany and Europe, set those people in parentheses as a bizarre and appalling aberration of history – as people who are not like us, as people who do and think things ‘we’ would never do or think. But this is faulty representation on our part: it ignores the material experience of all of history, and the capacity of human beings to craft actions and networks that lead only to the grave. It is not really an aberration; it is business as usual, only cranked up a few notches.

    The movie Downfall (2004) teases out this problem of human being and ethical interactions because its representation of those (non-)people is as people. We may not like them, we certainly wouldn't want to spend much time with them, but fundamentally they are shown to be of the same order as the rest of the human race. Downfall is focalized through Hilter's young secretary, Traudl Junge. Through her eyes we see the German officers, both Nazi and army, trying to bring some reason into an insane world: ordinary people struggling with ordinary concerns in an extraordinary world. We see the SS physician attempting to maintain conventional medical ethics while his Führer is seeking only death for all. We see Magda Goebbels torn between her fanatical passion for National Socialism and her desire for her children to have a future (of course, she chooses against the future). Hitler himself is insanely vicious, and yet sweet and considerate towards Traudl, who says, ‘In private he can be such a caring person. But then he says such … brutal things’. In short, we see members of the Third Reich as human beings, doing a lot of very ordinary, very human things: being complicit, or courageous, cowed or pragmatic, seeking their own benefit or concerned for their nation … and so on. It is a representation of that time in history and that set of human beings that does not shed new light on the history itself- does not act in any way as an apologia – but reminds us that in the same situation, we would probably behave in just the same way.

    Much of the work of science, philosophy and religion is dedicated to exploring how we can go so wrong; and how to avoid it in the future. And yet ‘wrong’ is itself a representation; as Downfall shows, for the Nazis and for many ordinary Germans it was a matter first of doing the ‘right thing’ (however appalling that might seem now), and then of trying to survive. There really isn't right or wrong; only ways of framing actions and events, and of measuring them against standards that are themselves never stable.

    Ethical Living

    Michel de Certeau addresses this problem of how to live ethically in a context where there are no real measures. He argues that knowledge, and understandings of knowledge and how it works, are starting points. In our era the point of knowledge is, Certeau writes, ‘to produce a more humane world’ (1986: 199). And we can start doing so by examining the terms and conditions of knowledge, and especially of what is represented as the truth of being. Ethics is, for Certeau, that which ‘defines a distance between what is and what ought to be. This distance designates a space where we have something to do’ (1986:199). Rosalyn Diprose too defines ethics as a ‘somewhere’ that is an action. She points out that the term ‘ethics’:

    is derived from the Greek word ethos, meaning dwelling, or habitat – the place to which one returns. … To belong to, and project out from an ethos is to take up a position in relation to others. (1991: 65)

    Finding the space, and finding how to take action in and from that space, is the starting point for ethics. We can see here shades of Deleuze's insistence that it is action, and not representation, that matters. Representation makes our context, but we ought not simply float along in its sea. Instead, we should understand theoretically and practically what is going on, and find the space where there is ‘something to do’.

    This is not, of course, a clear or direct path. As with everything human beings do, it is fraught with competing ideologies, competing priorities, and the impossibility of establishing just how things are and therefore what there is ‘to do’. The ethical domain is no more clear or complete than any other aspect of representation – it too is marked always by difference and deferral. The person who institutes a break with the dominant ideology, who claims the ethical responsibility to do things differently, is likely to slip into the metaphysics of presence and into the game of power, simply in order to get those things done. As Certeau again writes, what we tend to do in our effort to get things done is to claim that we are the ones who see things ‘right’; who have a clearer connection to the ‘real’ world (1986: 203). In the interests of ‘telling it like it is’ and therefore seeking ways of ameliorating human suffering or inequity, we are likely to claim that we ourselves have the only ‘right’ way of doing things, the only ‘true’ handle on things, and that we therefore have the right to tell other people what to do: much as Hitler, presumably, thought about his own sense of the world.

    Representation is always both performative and citational: it always acts – or brings things into being – as well as naming those things; it always allows meaning to be made, yet prevents it from being made (in any ‘real’ sense). It is the material we use to construct society, social realities and relations of power, but:

    essentially it is an open game where closure is never achieved and where there is always some room for contestation of given representations – even if that room may in some circumstances be severely, and too, limited. (Thomassen 2006)

    Representation is, therefore, crafted over a void, and yet is potent with authority because people see it as actuality, or as that which is capable of delivering presence.

    Representation and Rights

    This can be exemplified by discussing how the ideas of representation, ethics and human being converge and crash at the point of ‘human rights’. Human rights law and logic depend on there being a clear idea of what a human is. As we saw in Chapter 3, human beings exist as they do because systems of representation provide the simulacra that precedes the real of lived being. It makes us human, and different from all the rest of reality. But it also makes us separate from ourselves, internally divided. In Chapter 4 we saw that individuals become ‘humans’, ‘like us’, when they are represented in political terms, because they then belong to a community and can take up political life. In Chapter 5 I discussed Benedict Anderson's notion that nationalism is an idea that comes into being only through the imaginary – for instance through representations made in the mass media in which ‘we all’ (the members of a nation) recognize ourselves and one another. Michael Ignatieff (1994) takes this a step further, pointing out that nations are not just ideas produced as actuality, because they are grounded on ties of blood, common history and tradition, or the simultaneity of the media. Rather, nations are grounded on that super-representational site, law. It is the legal-juridicial framework that both represents and constitutes a nation-state, and hence confines the possibilities of being that are enjoyed by its citizens.

    Human beings are, thus, the products of representation across a number of domains, and not the result of reality (in reality we would, presumably, be simply living organisms, not different in kind from algae and antelope). Human rights law is designed to recognize us in our particularity, as humans, as those beings made a little lower than the angels, and owed a range of rights and freedoms. But it is directed not at me and you, at particular individuals, but at ‘humanity’ (Slaughter 1997: 7). Here is its big problem. Humanity does not exist; only ‘you’ and ‘I’ exist. Humanity is only an abstraction, an empty signifier, that has to be filled with meaning by those capable of saying who counts as part of ‘humanity’, and who is thus deserving of protection under the law.

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed and adopted in 1948 largely in response to the horrors of the Second World War, in an attempt to suture the gap between Us and Them. It operates under the premise that everyone who is human has equal access to rights. But it overlooks the contradictions that are the starting point for any interaction between human beings, or between states. In its attempt to craft one single community – humankind – it forgets the issues of inclusion and exclusion on which all communities are built. It is not a concrete act, but a representation.

    It is also a representation with a long history, and very wide general acceptance. Micheline Ishay traces the enactment of rights in law from the Code of Hammurabi to the US Patriot Act, and shows just how fundamental is the universalist notion of the common good, and the desire to protect human beings – or at least, what counts as a human being. Who would disagree with it, in principle? Even Stalin took time out from his savage reconstruction of Russia and the incarceration or murder of so many of its citizens to write a socialist constitution that was based on human rights (Ishay 2004: 211). Thus the problem of human rights is not first of all ideological, but political and representational: everyone agrees with rights (in principle) but cannot (in practice) work out how to protect them in the face of competing and contradictory interests (Alves 2000: 496). As a result, the Universal Declaration and its idea of human rights for all has succeeded marvellously, as ideology. But it has also failed dreadfully: since 1948 there has barely been a moment free from human rights abuses (South Africa, Vietnam, Kampuchea, Palestine, the USA, Chile, Tiananmen Square, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, the Lebanon, etc.). Human rights lawyer Costas Douzinas writes:

    The twentieth century is the century of massacre, genocide, ethnic cleansing, the age of the Holocaust. At no point in human history has there been a greater gap between the poor and the rich in the Western world and between the north and south globally. (2000: 2)

    The nations of the West are parties to human rights laws, and yet are perfectly capable of excluding from actual material rights – and from the category of Us, those who possess political life by being represented in discourse and in politics – all sorts of particular individuals: the mentally ill, foreigners, convicts, people of colour asylum seekers … the list could go on, indefinitely. And these nations do this while clinging to the mantra of reason, Christian values, attention to balance and order, liberal humanism, and national interests. I do not suggest that these nations or their governments are hypocritical, or only hypocritical. Double standards are inevitable because human rights can only ever be an abstraction. What this means is that it is effectively impossible to be consistent about human rights; and yet the context in which the ideas circulate determine what the discourse can mean for individuals.

    Money and Rights

    Let me explain this by means of a side trip into the issue of banknotes. While banknotes are, of course, money, they are far more than a mere basis for economic exchange. National currency is not only a system of representation of financial value, but also a system of representation of the nation and its values (Théret 1999; Tappe 2007). As such, the designs on banknotes are implicated in the nation's attitudes to human being, human good and human rights.

    This became something of a media cause following the US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. At that point, the Iraqi currency carried a portrait of the dictator, and the US authorities considered it a high priority to introduce a new note. Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority explained the reasons for this move in an address to the Iraqi people, where as well as the technical implications, he said:

    these bills will not have Saddam's picture on them. You will no longer have to carry the tyrant's portrait with you. … This new currency is a symbol of the hope in your future. It will be safer and easier for you to use. Beyond that, Saddam is off your money and out of your lives. (2003)

    What Bremer's address to the Iraqi people did not point out is that Saddam's image on the banknote served not only as a sign of his control of the nation, but also as a rallying point for Sunni resistance, and a reminder that the USA had not, up to this point, been able to capture Saddam (IRIN 2003). Still, it was celebrated in the US media and on blog sites as a human rights gesture, as the symbolic removal of the dictator, as an expression of emancipation for the Iraqi people. No doubt for many Iraqis it was a relief; no doubt for many Americans it was a clear statement of the moral value of invading Iraq.

    But once a government so explicitly points out the symbolic impact of images printed on foreign banknotes, it risks drawing attention to its own banknotes and the meanings they make. There is a longstanding complaint within the USA about the representations made by local banknotes, a number of which carry portraits of the Founding Fathers – men who built the nation, yet were also slave owners. One internet company produces shirts, bags, toys and other objects stamped with the slogan STOP PUTTING SLAVE OWNERS ON MONEY, and calls on its customers to ‘Help raise awareness with these gifts and apparel’ (cafepress, nd). Though the US currency has recently been redesigned, it has not effectively addressed this symbolic impact. One blogger, for instance, in a discussion about the new-look US currency, wrote the laconic comment, ‘Still look like baseball cards with slave owners on ‘em’ (vaxguru 2007).

    This may seem a bit unfair; after all, the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers are by and large on record as being opposed to slavery. In private, at least. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, whose portrait is on the $2 note, is the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and is on record as a very liberal thinker. Indeed, he is something of a poster boy for discussions about the human rights advances offered by the Declaration, but made no moves to emancipate his own slaves. George Washington, whose portrait is on the $1 note, was also a slave owner who apparently managed his ‘property’ in a comparatively enlightened manner, but did not free his slaves in his own lifetime. This raises the spectre of the Fathers of Freedom thinking and writing about human rights issues, while consciously ignoring the rights of those human beings listed on their schedules of assets.

    This is not to suggest that these historical figures were being disingenuous in their visions of justice and freedom; or that removing Saddam's image from Iraqi banknotes was a pointless act. Those acting as the champions of freedom can also be slave owners because they have been able to reduce both freedom and slavery to abstractions, and thus to forget the concrete materiality of others' existence. What we see in the case of both Iraqi and US currency are layers of representation, existing in layers of history. For Iraq, the banknotes served as a recurrent and inescapable reminder that Saddam was the standard, for local people, of value; that their economic and everyday life depended on and was delimited by him. Removing his portrait was a strong symbolic act, a statement that his power had been vitiated, and his capacity to act as the standard of value had gone. Each version of the Iraqi banknote offers a powerful sign; but who reads it, or is moved by it, is another matter. For instance, I would have great difficulty in saying whose face is on any of the banknotes I use on a daily basis. I pay attention to the dollar value, not the representational sign; and I suspect I am not alone in that. So the Iraqi banknotes bearing Saddam's portrait are both a strong statement, and an easily ignored sign.

    But the Founding Fathers' capacity to hold in one body and mind the glorious ideals of the Declaration and their treatment of slaves as commodities, not those ‘created equal’, not part of the ‘all’ for whom justice and liberty are promised, is quite another matter. Saddam's face on – and then off – the Iraqi banknotes is a reminder of an actuality of inhumanity; the early US system of social organization was the actualization of inhumanity. It may be that the images on the US banknotes are, by and large, ignored by their users, but the fact remains that the gap between abstract philosophy and concrete action has barely been plugged; slavery has gone in the USA, driven in no small part by the universalism inherent in the Declaration; but the relations of power and the possibilities of being for many African Americans are a long way from the Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness promised in that Declaration.

    The terms and contexts of representation do have significance – representation is, after all, a system of signification. But there is never just one way of framing these terms and contexts, or of reading the outcomes. So, although it seems that the more we proclaim human rights the less we practise them, in fact it would be difficult to do it otherwise given the problem of representation. There is always a lack, a gap between the thing and its articulation. This is particularly marked in human rights discourse because the very thing which is the focus of its attention, humanity, both does and does not refer to individual, concrete instances of people.

    And this gap has individual, concrete effects. It is not ‘humanity’ that suffers the lack of human rights, but particular people. It is not ‘humanity’ that virtually any government would be willing to torment, but particular people. Even in the West, those nations that claim a virtual monopoly over freedom and rights, it is possible to maintain the idea of rights and yet remove particular rights. There have been (too many) instances of just this in recent years, perhaps the most shocking being the incidences of torture carried out by the US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. This probably only seems the most shocking because it was shown, again and again, in the news media, and so was forcibly brought to the attention of Western audiences. Nonetheless, it serves as an example of how ordinary, by-and-large democratically-minded people, can represent others as objects of control and force, and not as people. Nor is this behaviour restricted to servants obeying their masters, or young and ill-educated people going beyond their mission: the leaders of Western states have been complicit in reducing people to lumps of flesh that can be tormented in the interests of extracting data. Australian attorney-general Philip Ruddock, for instance, when asked to comment on reported changes to the US military interrogation techniques, complained that ‘the US decision to ban torture as an interrogation method outright could make it more difficult to break up terrorist plots’ (Canberra Times 2006). I am sure it would be difficult for Philip Ruddock to watch a material person – another human – being abused, or deprived of sleep, and still maintain that such practices constitute humane forms of interrogation; but when they are represented as enemy, as object and as idea, it is easy to discount their human being. This is another of the gaps in the story, another Michael K. moment.

    Taking Action?

    What is the responsibility of any human being, given this context of a gap; the space where, as Certeau writes, ‘something needs to be done’? Perhaps what needs to be done is to put representation in its place, and observe it always as a way of making sense, not the way. Here is where Derrida's notion of representation as undecidability becomes useful. His deconstructionist theory insists on the fact that meaning is never secured; that truth cannot exist in representation because of the effects of différance – the slipping between self and other, the deferral of final meaning. This undecidability is the condition of representation, and also marks its limits: it is something but not everything, because it is never certain, and never completed. The gap is the space where something else might happen. It is an empty space, something that seems to contain or at least refer to the presence of actuality, but contains nothing sure. This could be taken to suggest that nothing can be done, ethically, or even should be done. If anything can mean anything, if there is not certainty or finality, what difference does any political action make? Surely it only becomes more of the emptiness that constitutes human beings and human societies? But for Derrida this thinking leads to an ethics of ‘responsibility without autonomy’ (Derrida 1995b: 261). We ‘ought’ to attempt a something – to use representation to enact events that can have meaning. Since representation is a matter of making real, of bringing into being, of substituting for, it is also representation that can make real, bring into being and substitute for a more ethical way of living together; not necessarily because it is the ‘right’ thing to do, but because it is pragmatic. Life is more comfortable when nations and individuals are at peace. The legal frameworks that define our normative roles are open to a range of interpretations, and a practical response would be to interpret them in a way that recognizes the particularity of each person, as a way of raising accord. Even in environmental terms, pragmatism is an ethics, because the planet, the very grounds of our existence, is more capable of supporting us when we care for it.

    How to take action is another matter. How does an individual committed to ethical and political action avoid being another Thomas Jefferson – laying down the terms for universal human rights while treating individual humans as commodities? One way is to re-represent: to tell the story from a different point of view. Jeffner Allen states, ‘A tale, once heard differently, can be retold’ (1989: 45), and many activists do just this: retell a story, reframe it, and use the very principles of representation to fill the gap between abstraction and actuality in a way that suits their interests better. One example can be seen in the work of Palestinian architect and now writer, Suad Amiry. Her work is dedicated to the restoration of traditional Palestinian buildings as a way of showing the long history of their presence in the region, and their very human interaction with the land. She is committed to reworking the representations made of her people in other ways too. Currently, the Western networks tend to show Palestinians in one of two ways. The first is the images of exhausted old men, grieving women and shattered children, living in dire circumstances in refugee camps; the second is furious young men, hurling stones at Israeli soldiers or heading off to become the next wave of suicide bombers. Both are empirically true: certainly these images are not invented. But they are limited and interested images – limited in that the entire Palestinian community is framed only as loss or violence, interested in that it reinforces the general Western perspective of Arabic people being marked only by lack and otherness. Suad Amiry rejects this:

    Unfortunately, we are always seen as people who are dying, but we want to be seen as people who are living and people who want to live and have a will to continue to live. (Amiry and Brown 2007)

    Jeffrey Brown, her interlocutor in this report, points out that Amiry's work is ‘about finding ways to normalize life’ (2007); that is, it is about working to reframe the story of the Palestinians, and remake their image to the point that the West can see them as part of ‘us’. The fact that she is doing this work and telling this story in a way that Western audiences can understand means she is using representation consciously as a means to re-engage the world of lived experience.

    The point in this issue is to work consciously with the principles of representation, remembering that however all-encompassing a dominant discourse may seem, it is only that: a discourse. It can only represent people and events from a particular perspective, for a particular reason. Its truth may seem self-evident or beyond discussion, and yet with just a turn of the head, things can be (re)presented differently. People and peoples resisting the forces of domination have, historically, been able to re-present a point of view, or a history, or a logic, and retell the story, showing in the process that it is not a given or natural set of affairs, but a matter of discourse.

    V.N. Volosinov explains it thus: ‘The domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs’ (1973: 10). This is because representation structures both the relations of power and the relations of idea-to-idea, and idea-to-‘truth’. But this does not translate into a process of cutting communities up into small groups who share precisely the same ideology. Rather, everyone in a political or otherwise-constituted group must, as we have seen in earlier chapters, loosely share the basic principles of that community, and certainly share the same sign system – particular linguistic codes, for instance. How they use those codes, however, and how they organize and present signs within those codes, is the site for struggle over the terms of ‘truth’ and power. ‘Various classes will use the same language,’ Volosinov goes on to write, and therefore ‘differently oriented accents intersect in every ideological sign. Sign becomes the arena of class struggle’ (1973: 23).

    We have seen in this chapter that struggle is a feature of human society. The gap between how things seem to be, how they are said to be, and how any individual experiences them as being, is a gap in which, very often, something ‘should be’ done, some political action taken, some theoretical approach worked through. Although representation is constitutive of us, it is still only an artefact of human practice, and therefore able to be put to work by us to get things done. Michel de Certeau urges this, pointing out the limits and the spaces offered by representation:

    Innumerable ways of playing and foiling the other's game, that is, the space instituted by others, characterize the subtle, stubborn, resistant activity of groups which, since they lack their own space, have to get along in a network of already established forces and representations. People have to make do with what they have. (1984: 18)

    What we have, by and large, is a dynamic environment that consists of interactions between the abstract, ephemeral logic of representation, and the lived, felt world of experience. It is up to each of us, as subjects of representation and representing subjects, to make sense of the ‘already established forces’, and play the game in a way that seems to offer, for a moment and a place, the best ethical outcomes.


    • Agency/agents: the term used for any individual or collective that acts in society (noun); also (verb) the work of any individual or collective who acts in society; the capacity to act; see subject
    • Analogy: a phrase or expression that illustrates one idea through the use of another idea or thing that is similar to it; the capacity to identify sameness in difference; often presented in the form of a simile (the sun is like a yellow ball); see metaphor
    • Apartheid (lit., ‘apartness’): the doctrine of separate development of people based on racial segregation: developed in South Africa in the mid-twentieth century and cause of immense suffering and deprivation for the African peoples of that nation
    • Axiology/axiological: a branch of philosophy that focuses on the study of value, including ethics
    • Bare life: term used by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben; refers to zoë, or ‘the mere state of being alive’, as distinct from political life which incorporates rights and protections; those who possess only bare life are exposed, like the sacrificial offerings of ancient religions, to political violence and death without any rights of appeal or redress; see subject
    • Binary oppositions: the basic organizational structure of much of western society, which sets two related objects or concepts in a paired, oppositional relationship; one of the pair is always dominant over the other; see différance
    • Bullshit: a type of misrepresentation; a term used by philosopher Harry Frankfurt to explain the process by which agents (social actors) obscure the actual state of things; having no concern for the truth
    • Chora: the prelingual state of the infant; term used by Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida and others to describe the state of being halfway between complete unknowing (the foetus) and the capacity to take a place in the symbolic order
    • Cogito (Latin, ‘I think’): the term used by Rene Descartes to express his understanding of human being as located in the capacity to think (short form of ‘cogito, ergo sum’; or, ‘I think, therefore I am’)
    • Cognition/cognitive: the processes of the brain that organize and arrange knowledge; related to thought, reason and creativity
    • Constative utterance: the linguistic term, used by J.L. Austin, for propositional statements – statements about the world that describe a state of affairs; see performative utterance
    • Cultural industries: those industries involved in generating and developing intellectual property, including film, art, design, creative writing, IT and digital products; also known as the creative or consciousness industries
    • Différance: Jacques Derrida's term that encompasses both the difference that is the basis of the symbolic order, and the deferral that is always part of any communication because final or perfect meaning can never be attained
    • Discourse: ways of constructing and organizing knowledge that pertain to a particular social or cultural field; the forms of language that are both associated with, and express the values of, those fields; see episteme
    • Enlightenment, the: the beginning of the modern age; characterized by a massive outpouring of philosophical thought and political actions, and by a shift from tradition and mysticism to reason, and from divine law to human law
    • Episteme: term associated with Michel Foucault for periods of history that organized around and in terms of specific worldviews and discourses
    • Epistemology/epistemological: the branch of philosophy that is concerned with theories of knowledge: how we know the things we know
    • Habitus: a term associated with Pierre Bourdieu, and used to describe ‘second nature’ – an individual's mostly unconscious dispositions, learned behaviours, and tendencies; it expresses how individuals ‘become themselves’, and how they engage in practices
    • Icon: a term associated with C.S. Pierce for a sign that is a direct representation of something already known, or a simulacrum for something in the real world; e.g., a photograph that looks like its subject; see index, referent, sign, symbol
    • Ideology/ideological: the matrix that frames what we can see, and what we can imagine; the practice whereby a particular group within a culture attempts to naturalize their own meanings and values, or pass them off as universal and as common sense
    • Imagined communities: a phrase associated with Benedict Anderson, to explain the ways in which nations and other communities, made up of many disparate individuals, come to seem real, necessary and natural collections of people who belong together through the effects of the mass media, stories of origin, and traditions
    • Index: a term associated with C.S. Pierce for a sign that does not resemble its referent, but is influenced and acted upon by it; e.g., a weather vane that signals the direction of the wind by being acted on the wind; see icon, referent, sign, symbol
    • Interpellate/interpellation: the term associated with Louis Althusser that explains how people become subjects through being named as such by authorities – inter [within] and appellation [the act of naming]
    • Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes' metaphor for the state, and for the relations of, and struggle for, power between citizens and state
    • Logocentric: an analytical method that pays excessive attention to spoken and written language, to the exclusion of other forms of communication and representation; a way of thinking that assumes and relies on an external reality and a unitary truth that can be discovered, or uncovered, by the use of scientific method and reason; see metaphysics of presence
    • Master signifier: a term associated with the work of Jacques Lacan; the sign, or signifier, that itself has no signified (i.e., an empty signifier), but is the basis of meaning-making for all other signs in a particular discourse, that provides them with a point of reference and a point of anchor for their own meanings
    • Metaphor: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally signifying one object or idea is applied to another; a substitutionary representation, in which the primary object is transformed into something else, suggesting a likeness or analogy between them; e.g., ‘the road was a ribbon across the field’; see analogy
    • Metaphysics of presence: the concept that behind all our representations is a concrete reality; that the terms we use to describe things are connected to actual ideas or objects, from which the terms draw their meaning; see logocentric
    • Mimesis: resemblance; central to ancient Greek thought on representation; understood as the representation of reality, of showing in a text the actual state of things; see metaphysics of presence; see resemblance
    • Mirror notion: a term drawn from political theory; the idea that parliamentary representatives should mirror the population as a whole, with proportional representation of all the groups and interests found in that population
    • Mirror phase: drawn from the work of Jacques Lacan; this is the point at which an infant first realizes they are separate from the rest of the world; the constitutive point of identity predicated on separation
    • Ontology/ontological: the branch of philosophy that focuses on theories of being, or existence
    • Performative utterance: a linguistic term associated with J.L. Austin for utterances that perform, or are part of the performance, of an action; have no concern with truth or falsehood or with description, only with doing; see constative utterance
    • Phenomenology/phenomenological: the branch of philosophy that focuses on experience, and the objectivities associated with experiences
    • Qualia: a term drawn from the philosophy of mind; the feeling of being and of various states and experiences; the phenomenological aspects of life
    • Referent: the concrete object or idea that is named – referred to, or designated – by a word or expression; that which is referred to by a sign and which, through a process of establishing equivalences between referent and sign, secures meaning; see signified; see sign
    • Resemblance: the form of communication or signification in which a sign, in some degree, resembles its referent; see mimesis; see simulacrum
    • Semiotics: the ‘science’ or study of signs; an approach to language that deals with how words and signs make meanings; the notion that all communication is based on signs – things that stand for other things
    • Signifier: the representative element of a sign; the word, image or sound used to refer to something; see signified; see sign
    • Signified: the represented element of a sign; the concrete object or idea that gives a signifier its content; see metaphysics of presence; see referent; see signifier
    • Sign: something that stands in for, or represents, an absent object, idea or person; for Ferdinand de Saussure, is the combination of the signifier and the signified; for C.S. Peirce, is ‘something which stands to somebody for something’
    • Simulacrum: a resemblance that is taken to perfectly duplicate the original; for Jean Baudrillard, is not a likeness, but a reality in its own right: the hyper-real; see resemblance
    • Social contract: social theory dating from the Enlightenment that examines human beings in communities; the implied agreement by which individuals agree to give up certain freedoms for the good of the community; the basis for civil society and representative democracy; see Leviathan
    • Subjects: individuals who possess social existence; members of the social and symbolic order; see bare life; see agent
    • Symbol: a term associated with C.S. Pierce for a sign that has no necessary connection with its referent; a symbol is understood only because there are shared conventional meanings for it; see icon, index, referent, sign
    • Symbolic order: the domain of all social existence, a linguistic domain; predicated on difference – between self and other, subject and object – and on the capacity to take up a place as a social subject
    • Symbolic power: power grounded on representation; the capacity to bring things into objective existence through the symbolic properties of language to name those things and make them explicit
    • Ubuntu: the doctrine that comes from sub-Saharan Africa, and focuses on the allegiances and responsibilities all people have towards all others; often expressed as ‘A person is only a person in relation to other persons’


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