Prior Reading
As I was dramatically fleeing back to Dundee, sensing the approaching lockdown, I ran into Waterstones and bought a 700-page book on the Vietnam War. I am yet to finish this book, I didn't even get halfway - but it set the tone for how I would spend my free time during lockdown and Summer.
As the beginning of year 4 approached, I decided I should begin researching. The main areas that I have a theoretical interest in are postmodernism, marxism, and (new) media art.
Anthony Gottlieb | The Dream of Enlightenment
I realised I had a very basic understanding of postmodernism and somehow decided starting at 17th century philosophy was the best place to start. I read Anthony Gottlieb's The Dream of Enlightenment, a book that briefly summarises the life and work of key enlightenment philosophers including Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz and Hume. I read this book not to specifically gain an understanding of the works of the specific thinkers, but more to gain a better understanding of the context and origins of certain philosophical concepts.
Noam Chomsky
As the Black Lives Matter protests began to develop in the United States, I developed an interest in colonialism. This led me down a rabbit-hole that took me to Noam Chomsky, an American linguist known for is political writing and activity. I managed to get my hands on Understanding Power, a book full of transcripts of interviews with Chomsky covering a whole range of issues including the role of the media in preserving power, and the general nastiness of the US government.
I found this book absolutely fascinating. I would love to bring his writing into my work.
E.H. Gombrich | The Story of Art
As I picked up other bits and pieces of mostly philosophical and political readings, I decided I could do with improving my understanding of Art. Realising that my understanding of art is embarrasingly poor, I decided I would start afresh with the basics, so I read E.H Gombrich's The Story of Art.
I have a decent understanding of artists, but I realised that this knowledge is fragmented. My goal in reading The Story of Art was to place these individuals within the progress of art. Seeing art as one narrative would help me understand the significance of my work, whilst providing me with even more reference.
Robert Hughes | The Shock of the New
With a similar intent, I began reading the Shock of the New to gain an understanding of the significance and advancements of Modern Art. Again, I don't want to suggest that I had no priot knowledge of modern art before reading this, but it fills in the cracks between the fragments of knowledge I do have. I discovered I don't have so much interest in the aesthetics of painting and sculpture but more of an interest in concepts within art. I don't claim to have a vast knowledge of these artists but Duchamp, Magritte and Beuys work seems to interest me the most. Works from these artists is explored in my artwork research page.
Gary Gutting | French Philosophy in the 2oth Century
French Philosophy in the 20th Century provides an account of the major works of major French thinkers during the 21st century. It is split into 3 parts: The Philosophies of the Third Republic, The Reign of Existentialist Phenomenology and Structuralism and Beyond. I am interested in the latter two, specifically the chapters on Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Foucalt and Derrida. The book gives (relatively) brief overviews of each thinkers work, allowing me to get a better idea on what works are worth commiting the time to reading.
Jean-Paul Sartre
In reference to Sartre's philosophical magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, Gutting explains two important philosophical concepts: being-for-itself and being-in-itself. Being-in-itself is an intrinsic property to objects that are the subjects of consciousness, e.g. a coffee mug or a pen.
Sartre believes that consciousness can have no content, it can only be directed at other things. He concludes that consciousness is nothing. Problems arise when one considers self-conscioussness. For a conscious to be conscious of itself, consciousness must have being-in-itself; it must exist.
Sartre introduces the concept of being-for-itself which is the consciousness awareness of itself whilst being directed at beings-in-themselves.
Ferdinand de Saussure
Saussure was a Swiss linguist credited for laying the foundations of semiotics and so structuralism. He believed that linguistics should be understood as the synchronic (language at one point of time, history and development is not considered) study of language systems.
He believed that language is a system in which the most basic elements are signs. A sign refers to the synthetis of a word and an idea. He calls the word the signifier, and the idea, the signified.
Saussure theorises that a sign only has meaning in relation to its place within the greater system of signs. The meaning of the sign is determined by the way it differs from other signs. For example, the meaning of "red" can not be expressed by showing somebody a range of red objects. They may conclude that "red" means objects that have mass, or objects that are not on the moon. It is not until you show the same object but in a different colour, that "red" can be understood.
Jacques Lacan
Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who sought to improve the understanding of Freuds work through structuralism. Freud's theories outlined three sections to the mind, the id, the ego and the superego. The id is responsible for the desires of basic needs such as food, shelter and sex. The superego also makes demands based on moral and cultural norms. The ego is the conscious part of the mind that considers how best to satisfy these drives.
Freud believed that mental illness occurs when the ego is overwhelmed with unconscious desires that can't reconciled. This can be treated by returning the ego to a stable true form.
However, Lacan believed that true indentity is always a deception. Identity is the identification with a false external image. It is a construct within what Lacan calls the Imaginary.
Lacan went on to believe that the unconscious mind is structured with a enclosed language. Much of the information is lost when being translated into spoken language making it difficult to understand.
Lacan is well-known for is theories on The Mirror Stage. The mirror stage occurs between the ages of six and eighteen months, where an infant develops an images of itself as an ego with control of its own action. Once the infant identifies with something outside of itself, then it can differentiate itself as a distinct autonomous being.
Roland Barthes
Barthes was a French literary critic, most well-known for delcaring the death of the author.
Mythology is Barthes's term for the use of language to express second-level meaning- that is one level beyond the primary meaning of the sign.
He uses the example of a the cover of a French magazine featuring a black soldier saluting was is presumably a French flag.
The primary sign is the image of a black soldier saluting the French flag. The secondary meaning appears with the context of the image being on a magazine cover. We are to interpret this image as displaying black soldiers as just as patriotic as white soldiers. This meaning can be interpreted as relating to racial prejudice, French nationalism and exploitation of native people by the French empire.
Barthes went further than his predecessors by expanding the meaning of signs to encompass non-linguistic symbols.
The following points are very important to my studies:
Barthes believed that when this type of sign is successful, the sign becomes part of nature. Using the example above, if this sign is effective, this idealised nation becomes my reality.
In Barthes's book S/Z, he analyses a short story titled "Sarrasine". Barthes states that this text relies on rules that he calls codes. All 5 of these codes appear in this story's first sentence. The result, he argues, is that the text doesn't have a single overall structure, it is actually a structure of complex and conflicting structures.
He then splits literature into two types- readable and writable. A readable text is very accesible and can be read passively. A writable text, confounds our expectations, making it difficult to read. In effect, the reader must be involved in writing the text, constructing meaning out of the author's product.
This dismantles the structuralist ideal of a single unfied structure beneath language, as text is a proliferation of diverging interpretation. The author is dead, and now the reader constructs meaning in the text.
Ferdinand De Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure is the father of semiotics. There are three main aspects of his semiotics that are of importance to me.
The first being that the sign as the building block of language. The sign is the synthesis of the signifier- what Saussure describes as an accoustic image and the signified- the concept or an idea.
The sign is to be thought of as like a sheet of paper, with one side being the signifier and the other the signified. The signifier and the signified are co-dependent. They can only be seperated in analytical contexts
The signified does not represent a real object, it is a conceptualised idea of an object.
The sign gains meaning in its difference to other signs. A sign alone has no meaning.
Saussure also believed that signs are arbitrary in that they have no inherent meaning. The linguistic sign is unnmotivated.
Roland Barthes
Jean Baudrillard
I have come across Baudrillard in DHT before so I have a basic understanding of his ideas in his book Simulacra and Simulation. I plan to rely a fair bit on his work due to his concepts of Hyperreality and sign-value, both of which are heavily grounded in Saussurian semiotics.
Secondary Sources
My technique for the moment is to not spend too much time on any one thinker, so I can cover as much ground as possible while my ideas are still very maleable. I tend to look at Wikipedia pages and Stanford Encyclopeadia of Philosophy pages, which is still a decent bit of reading, but nothing compared to reading the primary sources.
In my present understanding, the main idea of Simulacra and Simulation is that in postmodern society the proliferation of images through media has distorted signs often making them self referential. This closed loop of signs no longer has any representation of reality. Now that I have a better understanding of Saussure, it makes me less sure of my understanding of Baudrillard. Saussure wouldn't have claimed that signs ever represented reality, they only represented concepts of real or imaginary objects or ideas. I am getting to the point where I am going to need to get to primary sources to answer these questions.
He also introduces the concept of sign-value. This is an extra type of value, built upon Marx and Engles' use-value and exchange-value. Baudrillard believes that there is now an extra component to commodities that determines their value, and that is the idea that they represent. This allows individuals to be percieved to signify ideas that they desire to be percieved as. I think Marx has a similar or related concept called reification, I think it is the idea that the collection of objects eventually leads to one being defined through their objects, losing their subjectivity in the process.
I have also come across a ideas from his other books. In one of them, he predicts a future in which
Dick Higgins | Intermedia
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Nam June Paik
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