a past that has never been present

Art • Philosophy • History
June 9-12, 2011

University of King’s College

About Halifax, NS

Conference Poster
(1.8MB PDF)

Keynote presentations
and panels
are open to the public.
Centre for Interdisciplinary Research, University of King’s College

Conference Program





“Hence reflection does not itself grasp its full significance unless
it refers to the unreflective fund of experience which it presupposes,
upon which it draws, and which constitutes for it a kind of original past,
a past that has never been present.”
– Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

Thursday, June 9  
Unless otherwise noted, all panel sessions and keynote addresses will take place in the
KTS Lecture Hall, 2nd Floor of the New Academic Building (NAB)
1:30 – 2:45 pm Registration outside Alumni Hall, 1st Floor, NAB
3:00 – 4:30 pm Panel: Anxieties of Sexual Difference
Chair: Alexandra Morrison (University of King’s College)
  Trauma and Hysteria:
A Tale of Passions and Reversal

Bettina Bergo (Université de Montréal, Canada)
  A Past which was Never Present:
Irigaray, Deleuze and the Question of Sexual Difference

Anne Van Leeuwen (Jan van Eyck Academie, The Netherlands)

While Irigaray’s work has been increasingly read in concert with Deleuze, rarely is this affinity invoked as a way of elucidating her complex and protracted engagement with Lacan. Deleuze’s interpretation of Lacan in the second chapter of Difference and Repetition, however, culminates in a seldom‐discussed account of sexual difference, one that opens up the possibility of critically reframing the parameters and stakes of Irigaray’s engagement with Lacan. This paper will explicate Deleuze’s interpretation of the phallus as a question in order to recast Irigaray’s own insistence on the primacy of the question of sexual difference in her critique of Lacan. Crucially, Deleuze turns to Lacan in the context of explicating the syntheses of repetition that constitute time. While the passive syntheses of habit constitute a living present, the passive of syntheses of memory constitute “a past which never was present” (Deleuze 1994, 82). As such, the pure past is composed only of virtual objects that exist as constitutively fractured, fragmented and displaced. According to Deleuze, the symbolic phallus functions as the virtual object par excellence, “standing for a past which was never present” (Ibid., 103). As a result, however, the symbolic phallus does not designate a privileged term but rather marks a series of infinite displacements having the structure of a problem or a question. In this sense, Deleuze’s interpretation of the phallus as a question thus recontextualizes the parameters and stakes of Irigaray’s challenge to Lacan in her insistence on the primacy of the question of sexual difference.

7:00 – 9:00 pm Welcoming Remarks
Dr. Christopher Elson (French Department, Dalhousie University),
Director of the King’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research

Keynote: After the End: Psychoanalysis in the Ashes of History
Professor Cathy Caruth,
Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Comparative Literature and English, Emory University
9:00 pm – on Opening Reception in the King’s College President’s Lodge

Friday, June 10  
9:00 – 10:30 am Panel: Crisis, Responsibility, Solidarity
Chair: Elizabeth Edwards (University of King's College)
  Collective Trauma or Legitimation Crisis?
When Bad Things Happen to Grouped People

Susan Dodd (University of King’s College, Canada)
  Disordered Time as Moral Imperative:
Jean Amery’s Melancholic Historical Consciousness

Victoria Fareld (University of Gothenburg, Sweden)

The Austrian born writer and Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry urged, in the light of the Shoah, that the moral person has to revolt against time by demanding the impossible, “that the irreversible be turned around". By clinging to a disordered sense of time, Améry develops a temporally extended notion of moral responsibility, which not only turns victimhood into a moral duty, but makes us all – in the present as well as in the future – potentially guilty of crimes committed in the past, only by means of our relationship to this past. By the desire of later generations to leave the past behind, we all become morally guilty. One has to resist, Améry claims, this desire to forget by chaining oneself to the past – a past, however, that has never been (nothing but) present, as ”the moral person demands the annulment of time”; that is, an implosion of chronological temporality, a temporal revolution that we as future generations also should take part in by distorting our own sense of time us as a moral duty toward the past.

In my paper, I would like to reflect upon what I call Améry's concept of temporal responsibility in relation to the notion of historical consciousness. What would the idea of having a historical conscioussness mean from the positon taken by him? What would it stand for when being read through his texts? What does historical consciousness mean for the one who refuses to forgive and to forget, who refuses the work of mourning?

  The Mercy of Remembering: Politics and Poetics in Morrison’s New World
Eden Wales Freedman (University of New Hampshire, USA)

The haunting of the American past surfaces regularly in the literature of modern and contemporary American authors. Many of William Faulkner’s works, for example, contend that the past does not remain buried but reemerges, resulting in pervasive ideological heartbreak. This paper explores Toni Morrison’s treatment of the American past in continuation of and contradiction to those authors who unpack similar themes. The essay opens the question: for Morrison, what in America’s past informs its literary present—and how? I suggest that, for Morrison, what haunts contemporary Americans is not only the pervasive trauma of the modern era but the specter of American slavery, the repressed blood-memory of our shared (African) American heritage.

In A Mercy, Morrison develops this project by expanding her readers’ understanding of the identity of the American slave in the “New” World. What distinguishes this novel from Morrison’s others is that, in this consideration of slavery, the author does not focus explicitly on race but welcomes a multiethnic perspective into A Mercy to speak for all American slaves, for all others. In narrating the individual experiences of enslaved women of diverse races, for example, Morrison unites marginalized races and gender into one voice: the voice of the American slave. Regardless of one’s particular race, the text implies, “Americanness” itself is born out of the trauma of slavery, a past that—however often ignored or denied—applies not just to one group of people (e.g., to African Americans) but is shared by and continues to inform us all.

10:30 – 10:45 am Coffee break
10:45 – 12:15 pm Panel: The Painting of the Past
Chair: Jannette Vusich (University of King's College)
  ‘More for the Past than Before’:
Henri Fantin-Latour and the Art of his Time

Anne Leonard (Smart Museum of Art/University of Chicago, USA)

Much of Henri Fantin-Latour’s art can be understood as a form of commemoration or hommage. In this, he can be distinguished from contemporaries like Manet or Degas, the so-called painters of modern life, who engaged critically with the art of the past often as a means of breaking free of it. Fantin’s unbounded admiration for past masters is striking, especially when coupled with his explicit disapproval of most art of his own time. His nostalgia for the Romantics, in particular, manifests itself clearly in letters, as well as in the group portrait Homage to Delacroix and in lithographs honoring revered figures such as Victor Hugo and Hector Berlioz.

Fantin’s hommages stand in very ambiguous relation, however, to actual historical figures and events—not only for the obvious reason that he never met or witnessed them, but also because these imagined scenes attempt to restore artistic reputations that had suffered in the interim. Fantin’s representations of “a past that has never been present” nevertheless make bold truth-claims, indeed are put forward as a quasi-polemical challenge to contemporary painters who, in his view, approach the art of past ages with insufficient respect. The phrase in the title comes from a letter Fantin wrote shortly after the siege of Paris, when the artist spent long hours studying engravings and photographs after old master paintings. The question posed by this paper is, to what extent was Fantin’s being “for the past” bound up with a need also to recast that past, through hommage, in terms congenial to him?

  Erlebniskunst as serious play:
Experiencing the Past in Richard Oelze’s postwar landscapes

Eleanor Moseman (Colorado State University, USA)

Richard Oelze (1900-1980) was a Bauhaus-trained leftist painter whom the Surrealists welcomed after he fled to Paris in 1933. Although he attempted to distance himself from rampant acquiescence toward the Nazi agenda in his homeland, economic pressures led Oelze back to Germany in 1938. His conscription into the Luftwaffe and four-year assignment as an officers’ corps cartographer unleashed an existential crisis. Preserved among Oelze’s postwar writings are statements indicating disaffection for Germans who deliberately forget or deny personal responsibility for supporting or tolerating Nazi ideology that led to horrific human destruction. By 1955 Oelze’s artistic enterprise shifted from a personal project of working through the past in his writing and visual work to a campaign to bring his viewer to a reflective encounter with the past by plumbing the deep recesses of the mind. In his images and their titles, he conjures the unrepresentable—trauma and death, memory and forgetting—through undulations and holes punctured through landscape motifs. I argue that these visual gaps evoke the lacunae resulting from denial of history and absence of personal reflection. Furthermore, contemplating an Oelze landscape entails recognition of uncanny hybrid entities, a recognition that releases the return of repressed memory. This serious play in Oelze’s visual and verbal explorations encourages a level of viewer self-reflection akin to “working through” described by Freud and advocated by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in their popular study of Germany’s postwar climate of widespread denial, The Inability to Mourn (1967).

12:30 – 1:30 pm Lunch at Prince Hall, Arts & Administration Building
1:30 – 3:00 pm Panel: Gestures, Ruptures, Openings:
Matters of Sense in Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Luc Nancy

Chair: Christopher Elson (Dalhousie University/University of King's College)
  Vestiges of the Self: Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Luc Nancy
on Expression, Exscription, and Memory

Donald Landes (McGill University, Canada)

In an essay entitled “Painting in the Grotto,” Nancy writes that “[m]an began in the calmly silent violence of a gesture.” The space opened up between the gesture and the material traces in which the gesture is accomplished constitutes an interruption in the continuity of being, revealing being itself. As the stylus traces the contours of the hand, the hand touches the wall in an entirely new way, neither taking nor seeking support, but rather with the “grasp of a letting go: the letting go of form.” In a subsequent essay, “The Vestiges of Art,” Nancy argues that art is neither representation nor inscription, but rather exscription. The figure is the vestige of an expressive gesture and does not represent the one who traced it, but rather exscribes their presence in the event of expression, and the passing by of a world and of sense.

I will argue that Nancy’s work in these two essays deploys a certain logic of expression best understood in the tradition of Merleau-Pontian phenomenology. Echoing Merleau-Ponty’s notion of speech accomplishing rather than translating thought, for Nancy the expressive gesture brings forth a self that does not pre-exist its expression, and that is paradoxically always already past, always already fallen into material vestiges. By connecting Merleau-Ponty’s notion of a “past that has never been present,” in relation to expression and memory, to Nancy’s concept of exscription and interruption, this paper will examine the importance of Nancy’s post-phenomenological thinking of materiality and sense, and the decentered notion of memory this thinking implies.

  Jean-Luc Nancy on a Forbidding History
Sarah Clift (University of King’s College, Canada)
There is a discovery of history, but it is not the discovery of a thing,
a force, or a destiny; it is the discovery of a questioning and, you
might say, a kind of anguish.
—Merleau-Ponty, “The Discovery of History” (1956)
The enemy tortured: ‘Come on, tell!’
But not a word, nor a groan, nor a cry
Did the enemy hear.
—Anna Akhmatova, Poem without a Hero (1941)
In Being Singular Plural (1996), Nancy explores the possibility of conceiving the “society of the spectacle” in ways that move beyond an obedience to “the most trenchant and ‘metaphysical’ tradition of philosophy.” In a subsequent essay, “Forbidden Representation,” Nancy explores the claim that representations of the Shoah are “impossible and-or forbidden,” connecting the confusion of the claim to that “most trenchant” tradition mentioned in the earlier piece. Contrary to how it is routinely understood, the artistic image, he insists, is neither the presence of the thing nor its simulacrum; rather, it is the “presentation of an open absence within the given itself—within its sensory presentation—of the so-called work of ‘art.’”

According to this schema, an “open absence” is a lack of sense present at the very heart of the sensible. It is what supports and founds the presentation, without itself being in any sense foundational. And this open absence is also what disrupts the continuity of the image’s presentation, thereby revealing its very being. That is to say, for Nancy, the condition of possibility of the image is its “forbidding” disruption of sense, a disruption of or break with sense that is present in the image and yet at the same time, is not continuous with its presentation.

I will argue that these formulations regarding “open absence” and forbiddenness are indebted to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of art in “Eye and Mind” and in particular, to the idea developed there of the “constitutive emptiness” of a work of art as “an emptiness which…sustains the supposed positivity of things.” By connecting this notion of “constitutive emptiness” both to Merleau-Ponty’s account of perception as haunted by an originary or immemorial past and to Nancy’s work of complicating what is at stake in claims of history’s essential unrepresentability, I will then draw out some of the implications of Nancy’s “materialist” thinking for contemporary discussions of representation, ethics and history.

3:00 – 3:15 pm Coffee break
3:15 – 4:45 pm Panel: Memory & Echo
Chair: Leigh Yetter, Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas, McGill University
  institute for public life of art and ideas The Bridge and the Book
Mark Antaki (McGill University, Canada)

This paper explores the two metaphors in the Epilogue to South Africa's 1993 Interim Constitution: the bridge (between an apartheid past and a human rights future) and the book (the Constitution refers to the people of South Africa opening a new chapter in their history). While part of the Interim Constitution and tied to the provision of amnesty and Truth and Reconciliation Commission, these metaphors shed some light on the possible shape(s) of a South African ethos of foundation and politics of memory. Indeed, the bridge has taken off as the dominant metaphor for a longer-term project of transformative constitutionalism. The book metaphor, however, has been neglected. Nevertheless, it is quite revealing. The chapter reference in the Epilogue can be fruitfully grasped as pointing not to a history book but to a novel, a novel in which the South African people are at once hero and author. The impossible combination of hero and author, just like the one-way bridge between past and future, reveals modern understandings of human being-in-the-world and temporality.

  Memory and Echo:
Law, Technology, and ‘Popular Culture’

Desmond Manderson (McGill University, Canada)

Much contemporary writing about law treats popular culture as a creature of modern technology and the phenomenon of mass media. This misunderstands both its continuity with traditional forms, and the precise differences that modern technology creates. Popular cultural representations of law and justice appeal to a longstanding tradition evident in familiar archetypes of cowboys and superheroes. Indeed, such a tradition reaches back to much older Christological models of justice and subjectivity which modernism has deflected but never destroyed. On the other hand, hi-tech media embeds those traditions in technology’s language of passivity and its strange but insistent erasure of the past. Under conditions of the contemporary world, popular culture appears not as the memory of past thinking about law, but as an echo. The irony is that while popular culture’s presentations of law appeal to a substantive tradition, their formal hyper-modernity not only negates that past, but undermines the pluralist and discursive openness which are its well-spring. In a world shorn of faith in the traditional structures which sustained the ‘moral economy’ and a moral legality, the appeal to simply trust in an inarticulable justice opens the prospect not of salvation but of legal tyranny.

  Waiting in the Grey Light:
The Echo of the Child amid the Weight of Memory

Teresa Strong-Wilson (McGill University, Canada)

Sebald was born in 1944 in Germany, near the Swiss Alps. Though insulated from the war, at the age of 17, he saw a film at school on Bergen Belsen, which provoked exile from his native Germany. He spent most of his adult life at the University of East Anglia where he taught European Literature and Creative Writing. His academic work came to focus on the phenomenon of suicide in old age: what he theorized as the weight of memory in survivors of trauma. As you get older, you forget more but what “survives in your mind acquires a very considerable degree of density” (Sebald in Wachtel, 2007, p. 54). This conference paper will explore Sebald’s way of writing about the burden of memory as it pertains to currere. Currere is a “reflexive cycle in which thought bends back upon itself and thus recovers its volition” (Grumet, 1976, pp. 130-1 cited in Pinar, 2004, p. 35). As conceptualized by William Pinar, it is a form of cultural criticism that studies the relationship between the individual and the social; key to this relationship is memory. The focal text will be Sebald’s last work, Austerlitz, and within it, the relevance to the weight of memory of the figure (echo) of the child.

7:30 – 9:30 pm Colm Tóibín Alumni Hall
Saturday, June 11  
9:00 – 10:30 am Panel: Parting Gestures & Deathbed Scenes
Chair: Sarah Clift (University of King's College)
Zsuzsa Baross (Trent University, Peterborough, Canada)

In a collection of essays posthumously dedicated to Jacques Derrida, I give the following sense to the condition “posthumous” as it applies to writing: the effect of a retroaction, it befalls writing; something, an event or a text, in any case something irreducible to death, arrives from the future; it imprints its sign as the secret index the writing has always carried on the body of the text, starting from which (sign) it re-approriates – redoubles, repeats, or differentiates – the text.

The paper I propose to present is a reading of Derrida’s very last and posthumous communication in the context of the above definition.

  Proust’s Remains
Rebecca Comay (University of Toronto, Canada)
  'Blind hands': Reflections on Embodiment and Finitude
Scott Marratto (University of King’s College, Canada)

My paper addresses the remark made by Merleau-Ponty in “Sentir” of the Phenomenology of Perception, that each sensation is "a birth and a death of the subject" ("its origin is anterior to myself"). According to Merleau-Ponty perception occurs as living movement that generates sense; it generates sense in response to the very absence of the origin (i.e., the sensation). The recurring motifs of origin and birth in Merleau-Ponty have been examined by other scholars, but I would like to pick up on the other half of the remark–sensation, the absent origin, as a death of the subject--and I will argue that, for Merleau-Ponty, this entails that living movement, gestures, etc., are always also gestures of mourning. The movements of our bodies generate sense, but they also attest to an irreducible non-sense, to the exposure of flesh to events, to alterity, to death. I will speak of this exposure in connection with a remark of Proust's that the dying Grandmother's gestures "meant nothing," and to the recurring image of arms waving in the air–the "blind hands" of Oedipus in Sophocles narration of his death, in Seamus Heaney's "What Passed at Colonus," and, most importantly, in Caravaggio's painting of the conversion of St. Paul.

10:30 – 10:45 am Coffee break
10:45 – 12:15 pm Panel: Narrative Timings
Chair: Stephen Boos (University of King's College)
KTS Lecture Hall
  The Past in the Present:
Paul Ricoeur and Historical Representation

Kenneth Sheppard (Johns Hopkins University, USA)

If we are looking for a conception of the past as a representation attentive to the pitfalls of the subject-object dichotomy, we can do no better than to look at the work of Paul Ricoeur. This paper explores Ricoeur’s work as one fruitful response to Merleau-Ponty’s distinction between an “original past” and the past as a representation experienced in present consciousness, based largely on Time and Narrative and Memory, History, Forgetting. Ricoeur’s philosophical career was dedicated to overcoming dualisms like that of subject-object by attempting to reveal the unitary totality of human experience through phenomenological description. But in completing his early project, the three-volume “philosophy of the will”, Ricoeur came to abandon strict phenomenological description for hermeneutics. This paper follows Ricoeur through a series of reflections on temporality and representation that puts Merleau-Ponty’s distinction to work by suggesting that the past is experienced within the horizon of the present as a retained representation of “what was but no longer is” (Memory, History, Forgetting). According to Ricoeur such representations, be they mnemonic, discursive, or material, “stand for” the past. As this paper attempts to show, Merleau-Ponty’s “original past” can be represented only by correctly apprehending how temporality and narrative representation are analogically related.

  As for the Future:
Time and Resistance in Lispector’s “The Hour of the Star.”

Cory Stockwell (University of King’s College, Canada)

Lispector is fascinated by time, and specifically by the ways that different temporalities communicate – or rather, refuse to communicate – with one another. Her novels speak of the unattainably ancient, of a “now” crushed by the weight of commercialization, of the “explosions” constituted by the ticking of a clock. My paper focuses on another temporality running through her work: that of the future, and specifically of a future that her writing seeks to defer. At the end of her last novel, The Hour of the Star, the protagonist, Macabéa, seems destined to die. The narrative, however, continually puts off this death, repeating on several occasions the formulation (or invocation) “not yet”: “I happily think that the time for the film star Macabéa to die has not yet arrived.” The question my paper thus seeks to address is this: why does the narrative brandish this time of the not yet, this deferral that knows that it is destined to fail? What happens in this little slice of time between that which is, and that which must inevitably come to pass? If, as I argue, Macabéa’s very existence is posited by the novel as an inaccessible secret, then does this future tense – a kind of weak future tense, echoing Benjamin’s weak messianism – provide the narrative with a voice capable of uttering not so much the secret of Macabéa’s existence as the silence of this secret? How does the not yet express the secret without unveiling it?

12:30 – 1:30 pm Working Luncheon
1:30 – 3:00 pm Panel: Time, Embodiment and the Coming Community
Chair: Stella Gaon (St. Mary's University)
  History, Truth and the “Come” of Human Rights:
Global Politics under the Derridean Paradigm

Ben Dorfman (Aalborg University, Denmark)

In The Politics of Friendship, Jacques Derrida (1997, 306) discusses the “come of a certain democracy.” By “the come of a certain democracy,” Derrida indicates the ineluctable futurality of politics; as he terms it in Of Grammatology (1998, 43), “logocentrism” provides a mastery over the social present via projections of future politico-linguistic structures rooted in claims to the historical past. At the level of political ideology, human rights may constitute the ultimate logocentric concept. Human universality and inherentness (Morsink 2009; Hunt 2007) represent the heart of the human rights ideal. As concerns rights, the “presence” of contemporary history relies on its “absence.” Human rights project histories based on “full” historical understandings cloaked in the vagaries of partial sets of claims to human nature. This reflects the desire for sets of realities concerning the past that may or may not have anything to do with historical “truth.”

The purpose of this paper is to examine the above historico-epistemological claims. Firstly, the paper will argue that, since the end of the Cold War, human rights have emerged as a set of liminal claims for both international relations and global civil society movements. This based on the victory of liberalism in the Cold War. As subject to logocentrism, however, human rights reflect politics under the Derridian paradigm. “Human rights” represent the attempt to manifest human potentialities heretofore only partially realized. This is a function of the “yet to come” governing the “what has been.” I.e., à la Derrida, human rights exhibit (an attempt at) social mastery – social mastery subtly acknowledged as non-existent. The ahistorical nature of human rights supposedly governs their historical unfolding. This makes human rights a “past which has never been present” – i.e., human rights become historical imaginations manifesting historical “realities” in the form of policies and ideals ultimately symbolizing a lack of political control.

  The Non-Being of the Present and the
Temporality of all Bodies According to Augustine of Hippo

Sean Hannan (University of Chicago, USA)

By reading the account of time found in Book XI of the Confessions together with Book IV’s account of the “arising and passing away” [IV.x] of all things (occasioned by the death of an unnamed friend), we can see how Augustine of Hippo was striving to come to terms with the temporality of the world. Despite his preference for eternity, Augustine is unable to devalue everything temporal in light of that perfect stasis. Rather, the doctrine of creation forces Augustine to think through the mystery of how a timeless and incorporeal god could create a world of temporal bodies—and call them altogether “good.” Moreover, Augustine wants to uncover how their ceaseless rhythm of genesis and decay constitutes a strange and terrifying kind of divine beauty. It is in this context that Book XI’s critique of the present is to be read. If we are to see more clearly the unstable giving-way and coming-forth of all things—that is, if we are going to see the world ‘temporally’—we will have to do away with the misconception that time is centered around some firm or discrete present. By telling us that the present “has no span” or “strains toward non-being,” [XI.xv] Augustine is retroactively laying the groundwork for an understanding of time that would do justice to the way things temporally are.

  Hannah Arendt's Concept of Natality:
Reflections on the Birth of the Given

Daniel Brandes (University of King’s College, Canada)
3:00 – 3:15 pm Coffee break
3:15 – 4:30 pm Panel: The Uncanny Returns of Film
Chair: Darrell Varga (Nova Scotia School of Art and Design)
  Beryl Korot: Weaving the Apparatus
Katie Geha (University of Texas-Austin, USA)

In this paper I will examine Beryl Korot’s video installation Dachau 1974 (1974) in light of the burgeoning medium of video and interest in information in the 1970s. I consider how the work relies on innovative technology, the porta-pak-camera, and ancient technology, the handloom, as a structuring device for memory, or a collapsing of past and present. In Dachau 1974, Korot followed tourists in the German concentration camp and recorded the site in a straightforward manner, allowing for the natural sounds of the site—birds chirping, the crunch of feet on gravel, the chatter and even laughter of the passer-by—to act as the soundtrack to the 4-channel video. How does one implement new technology, the video apparatus, to create a work about an atrocity that occurred in the recent past? Korot answered that question by implementing the patterning of weaving to her video images, creating one of the earliest multi-channel video installations. Korot’s use of the loom, or “the first computer on earth” will be contextualized through discussions on the apparatus and the advent of video technology during this period.

I will argue that the new video technology in combination with the ancient technology of the handloom offers a larger meditation on history and our experience of time. Might it be possible to approach this video installation as one might approach a tapestry? That is to see the threading, process and information, while also experiencing the pattern, a work created through the accumulation of time; a graphing of history from the Dachau of 1945 and the Dachau of 1974, a simultaneous experience of then and now.

  The Return of an unforeseen past:
Uses of nostalgia as a critical tool in contemporary art

Katarzyna Ruchel-Stockmans (Research Foundation Flanders, Belgium)

In the wake of the recent historiographic turn in contemporary art, the past is increasingly seen as a contested ground between clashing representations and narratives. Especially in the European context after 1989, the collapsing binary structures of the Cold War have created a vacuum in which the past appears not only as an unexplored but an effectively unpredictable field. Contemporary art practices respond to this situation by exploring narrative ruptures and altered temporalities of history by means of image recycling and reenactment. Strategies of repetition, similarly to child's play, bring apparently the same yet in an altered or, in some cases, reversed form. In this paper I will focus on Yael Bartana's videos Mary Koszmary and Mur i Wieża in order to demonstrate how they revisit Poland's traumatic past by a significant detour. In historically loaded sites of contemporary Warsaw, the artist scripts a return - or a reversed exodus - of the Polish Jews, bringing an ambiguous message of reconciliation and a false hope. This is a past that has never been present, not only because it is impossibly utopian, but especially because it is seen through a colored glass of Zionist, national socialist and communist propaganda film. In her use of operative nostalgia, Bartana thus critically engages with national myths that haunt recent history. Playful and ironic, her work frustrates our common understanding of historical representations, at the same time revealing the formative potential of non-homogeneous temporalities in art.

5:00 – 7:00 pm Conference Dinner at Saege Bistro (optional)
7:30 – 9:30 pm Keynote: Further Questions:
A Way Out of the Present Philosophical Situation (via Merleau-Ponty)

Professor Leonard Lawlor, Sparks Professor of Philosophy, Penn State University

Sunday, June 12  
10:00 – 11:30 am Panel: Merleau-Ponty’s Times
Chair: Daniel Brandes (University of King's College)
  Merleau-Ponty and Lacan on Time
Christopher Latiolais (University of Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA)

The encounter between phenomenology and post-structuralism will start well after it began. Three belated attempts to renegotiate the terms of their encounter focus upon Freud – Boothby’s account of “dispositional objects,” Zizek’s account of fantasy, and Ricoeur’s account of Freud – and it’s appropriate that a figure predating both Merleau-Ponty and Lacan should shift the terms of their engagement. Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh, I argue, theorizes embodiment as language, just as Lacan’s concept of separation theorizes language as embodiment. Both theorize the unconscious ontologically as the eruption of language within the already alienating mirror stage of social co-embodiment. Accordingly, Lacan can forego a theory of perception just as little as Merleau-Ponty can forego a theory of language. I demonstrate that Lacan rejects classical structuralism on the basis of an implicit theory of perception, just as Merleau-Ponty rejects classical accounts of perception on the basis of an implicit theory of language. For both thinkers, being in language establishes Nachtraeglichkeit as the ontology of being in time, of “telling” times apart, which both thinkers conceptualize as somehow “wild” or “sliding,” savage or acephalic. For both, the experience of the slippage or disjointing of how the world anonymously “holds” or “grips” us must paradoxically be appropriated as our own, individuating biography of desire. The disjointedness of their debate arises from the fact that Lacan misunderstands Merleau-Ponty’s concepts of body and flesh as his own, earlier concept of “full speech,” and Merleau-Ponty misunderstands Lacan’s account of separation/structure as illicitly eliminating the question of “who sees and speaks.” Each became the other’s vanishing mediator as both struggled against subject-philosophy.

  Time to Heal? – Merleau-Ponty’s Temporal Remedy and Cailloisian Myth
Bryan Smyth (University of Memphis, USA)

Merleau-Ponty’s evocation of “a past that has never been present” refers to the pre-reflective engagement with sensory givenness that forms the ground of perceptual experience. Paradigmatizing binocular vision, Merleau-Ponty described this engagement as a process whereby the sensing body enacts a “focusing movement” that achieves a synchronous rhythm with the environing world. Sensing is thus the locus of what Husserl called proto-temporalization [Urzeitigung]: the sensing body “secretes time” because it “brings into existence a past and a future for a present.” As our primordial contact with reality, then, perceptual sense emerges only as historical sense—without a “historical orientation,” there is no presence but only perceptual non-sense. As Merleau-Ponty noted, though, concerning the past it is not a “true history” that perception invokes. Rather, it “affirms and renews in us a ‘prehistory’,” a ‘natural’ state of affairs that pre-exists the present, not retrospectively, but retrojectively. Pastness is a function of perceptual presence, which is in turn embedded within a world-historical horizon that conditions the temporality of sensory givenness as such. Concerning the consequences of Merleau- Ponty’s view for historical representation, then, it is this horizon that must be examined. In this paper I argue that this horizon is by methodological necessity mythical, and that it concerns the normativity of human nature—specifically, it affirms in ‘the depths of the present’ the latent reality of human universality as a kind of natural purposiveness. This myth of ‘Man’ thus implies a potentially solidaristic view of otherwise discordant embodied phenomena by synchronizing them with this narrative trajectory. Although Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of myth was heavily indebted to Cassirer, the decisive connection is with Roger Caillois, in particular the idea of “militant orthodoxy” with which he concluded his 1938 work, Le mythe et l’homme. For this enables us to grasp the generative nature of Merleau-Ponty’s use of myth: while the process of Urzeitigung is typically passive and prepersonal, Merleau-Ponty claims that it is possible to intervene actively in it by performing a ‘re-focusing movement’ – in effect, a Gestalt-shift – with respect to the background horizons of experience. We can thus find a “remedy” against historical time – realize “a new pulsation of time” – in part through retrojective revision. Such is what Merleau-Ponty claimed occurs in successful psychotherapy, and the same applies at higher social levels: historical agency, the ability to make our own future, depends upon the capacity to generate our ‘prehistory’ in this remedial way. Although meant as a critical appropriation of the immediate experiential wholeness that characterizes mythical consciousness, this view is by no means unproblematic. But it does express the necessary consequences vis-à-vis history of Merleau-Pontian ‘perceptual faith’.

  Lateness and Sense Genesis
Keith Whitmoyer (New School for Social Research, New York)

It is well known that Merleau-Ponty makes certain remarks in his later works which suggest that he began to view his pivotal text, Phenomenology of Perception, as an insufficient articulation of his philosophy due to its apparent commitment to a “philosophy of consciousness” (1968/1964, 183/234, 200/250). Such worries, furthermore, have become instrumental for the reception of this work among some scholars. In contrast to this trend, this paper argues that by attending more closely to certain moments of the text’s development of a theory of sense-genesis, the concept of constitution appropriate to a philosophy of consciousness undergoes an important de-stabilization and revision. Indeed, anticipating a position that becomes more clearly articulated in later texts, Merleau-Ponty suggests in Phenomenology of Perception that the genesis of sense must be understood as the reprisal and repetition of a “fund of experience” which, he says, constitutes “a past which has never been present” (Merleau-Ponty, 2006/1945, 282/289). The task for a phenomenology of perception, then, is to think through the genesis of sense, not as its spontaneous birth in the present of constituting consciousness, but in an original past, as “already constituted” (2006/1945, 5527/517). Merleau-Ponty’s account of sense-genesis in Phenomenology of Perception can thus be understood as offering a theory of “ontological lateness”—a philosophy that accounts for the manner in which reflection is delayed with respect to the genesis of sense, as enveloped in its becoming, and a philosophy which simultaneously recognizes itself as subject to this delay.

11:45 – 12:45 Lunch at Prince Hall, Arts & Administration Building
2:00-3:30 pm
boarding at 1.45
Halifax Harbour Cruise, together with participants from the Elizabeth Bishop Symposium aboard the Mar II Departure from Queen's Wharf (behind the Maritime Museum on Lower Water Street). Free of charge (with cash bar on board)

  Funding from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada is gratefully acknowledged.
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