Research notes A5: Gathering my thoughts

I continue to look at the assignment 5 question, “What is reality?”

It is, no doubt, a deliberately vast question that has many, many answers. And none of them absolute in any case. Perhaps I should merely write about the lines and circles that make up the letters, which lead to the word REALITY and represent the sounds, which are shapes made by the body and air, that arbitrarily represent the idea, which is itself a metaphor – as all words are……

Or one might simply say, there is no reality… which I may well conclude.

I wrote to MB to ask if a) concentrating on language seemed suitable (a fellow student told me it was too big a subject which obviously caused concern) and b) to request direction towards a key paper by any of the people we have been looking at or someone else’s that I might anchor my discussion around.

I explained the seeing the film Arrival, which looks at the way in which language might shape perception and our understanding of time, amongst other things, followed by a visit to the Tate where I experienced Philippe Parreno’s Anywhen in the Turbine Hall. I noticed that both these works were exploring non-linear narratives. Both cultural texts are filmic,  –  visual and aural. However, the experience of Anywhen is also affected by actual time, the building space, and other people in a  more active way than we are used to in a normal cinema setting.  So, in that regard I had not thought to myself, I am also looking at film as a subject to tackle in this essay. I said in my email, “I think I would like to concentrate on language – and how it relates to the Real.”

MB replied “A very suitable if overwhelming topic. Dealing with language, ‘the real’ and film and the relations between them will be very tricky to say the least” (Belshaw, 2016)

So my first thoughts were – language is so weird because sometimes we don’t actually know what we’re saying, or we think we’re saying one thing and it is read as something else. So I had to think really hard about the element of film. Had I indeed suggested that I wanted to look at this triangular relationship – Film, Language, Real?

I know I have been thinking about moving image a lot lately and investigated if it would be possible to include a moving image module on my pathway. It is not, without changing pathway and I am limited by the OCA time scales so I have decided to stick with my current pathway, photography.

I am increasingly interested in film as a medium. This is not surprising; a history of film runs though my family ‘veins’, which certainly influenced early ideas about self. My grandfather, who I never met, was a film distributor in London in the 30s, 40s, possibly 50s. I don’t know exactly when he lost his business or how really. There are quite conflicting stories from various parts of an extremely disparate global – and I use these words in the loosest terms possible – family network. My father was born in 1939 and my grandfather was much older than my grandmother at the time. I know the end of my father’s rather expensive schooling was paid for by a charity or someone other than my grandfather due to this big financial loss, and the family had to move from a mansion in North London to a small basement flat off Baker Street. This change had a huge effect on my father and I am aware my aunt left the UK for Canada as soon as she was old enough, sixteen in fact (which actually doesn’t seem quite old enough). My father had memories of very well-known people visiting the house during his early childhood. His perception of women was heavily influenced by such characters, no doubt. When I was a little girl I was given book after book about movie stars. I had dozens of them. Large books filled with portraits of famous actors. Merle Oberon and Vivienne Leigh were my idols, amongst others. It’s almost like I was being given a continuous and repetitive visual guide to staying trapped in an imagined version of 40s Hollywood. I managed to accidentally leave the books behind in Manchester when I left in 1996. I only realised on the train heading back to Bournemouth that I’d forgotten them. I was very sad about leaving that part of my life anyway, although knew it to be the right thing, however, I felt the act of leaving the books behind was somehow representative of letting go or even rejecting something.  So film and the still photographs of the people who populated Hollywood’s early days is hugely important to me in some way. Because of this, I felt I needed to really look at the way MB had interpreted my email – relating the Real, language and film – even though I had not considered I was in fact looking at film per se.

The next extraordinarily complicated statement from MB related to how I might approach the differences: “An analytic approach would want to begin with what language, film and reality are before venturing to say how they relate to one another. A continental approach would have no truck with separate identities and see them as differentiated in their relatedness. That would fit Saussure’s theory of language which most continental thinking adopts: ‘…in language there are only differences without positive terms.’ Likewise there are no films as such only differences between them. This means we see things according to things already seen. Hence the real is not simply ‘out there’. Relatedness is wedded to temporality in terms of memory, anticipation and the like, which is very handy for film studies.” (Belshaw, 2016)

An analytical approach – this seems like a simple enough and straightforward approach, if not a little pedestrian.

The rest of the email made very little sense to me so, obviously, I felt that was the way to go, if indeed I stay on this path of relating the Real to language and film. If I do head down this path I need to revisit Saussure and perhaps delve deeper rather than merely looking at the Introduction to Semiotics which was a good place to begin, and may well prove enough at this level.

However, I keep going back to language, and then on to narrative, and how they both at times frame and contain, but also distance us from the Real. (see Lacan’s ideas about talking therapy connecting analysands to the Real) I think about Genesis in the Old Testament and see how it describes the beginning of culture and in particular language. A binary system which is how we comprehend things is set in place. If something is not good, it is bad. If it is not day, it is night. If it is not male, it is female.

I think about the current distaste for such binaries and the tension between those who wish to hold on to them. Last night my friend told me her teenage daughter often rolls her eyes at her, and says,”Oh mum, you’re so binary!” (And my friend is a relatively open-minded, progressively-thinking human being….) And I consider my middle son’s insistence that he is neither male nor female, he prefers the term ‘other’ when filling out online forms. Now, he may indeed be grappling with gender but I’m pretty sure he isn’t. I’m fairly certain it is merely a rejection of the way in which we have structured our reality for so long. And I don’t think he’s doing it in some way-out, remote, fringe thinking. There does seem to be a very definite collective social tension between clear, static boundaries and more nebulous, flexible and organic ones at the very core of our social being – reflected in language. Until recently, I do not recall anyone regularly using the word binary. Now 8 and 12 year olds do as a matter of course as they question the fundamental way in which we categorise reality. This is reflected in the film Arrival and perhaps also in Anywhen.

What’s more there is an interest in the art world, which explores collective consciousness especially in relation to recent technological advances, which is in itself a rejection of the culture of individualism. (And of author-gods, as explored in A4). Recently I was contacted by Matthew Aldred, which was good timing, considering what I am looking at, as he is managing a project for his MFA with the OCA called Grey Matters, which explores collective intelligence. More here. With the apparent disillusion in many spaces with fixed structural language, and a move away from linear narratives, we seem to be exploring and trying to understand an alternative way of perceiving reality. And that seems intrinsically linked to the advances we’re seeing in science and technology, and in particular, in relation to quantum physics. When we all believed God was the top of our chain of being and He appointed someone to the position of King (or Queen, more rarely) then we could be more certain about what was what. Now that science is presenting us with more and more possibilities about the nature of our existence we seem to be no longer satisfied with the way in which culture is demarcated as described in Genesis. Also the very building blocks of our existence is now so confusing, even to the scientists, the apparent ‘simplicity’ (at least in terms of binary positions , i.e good/bad) provided by Genesis may no longer be applicable or useful. If we view ourselves in terms of a super organism rather than individuals we may have to embrace redesigning our entire moral compass for starters.

  • With all of this in mind I need to look at the following in more detail:
  • Genesis
  • Narrative  – (from Rob Townsend’s latest assignment)
  • I want to see Arrival again and also revisit Anywhen in the Turbine Hall.
  • MB has advised me to read Chapter 5 of Hal Foster’s Return of the Real, which I have started. I am happy to say that I am finding this far less tricky than I did when I first picked up that particular book.
  • Relook at Lacan’s Real (and other interpretations)
  • Look at Saussure  – work out what continental approach actually means
  • I also need to keep in mind I only need to write 2000 words and must aim to get the essay in by end Jan, and that this is a level one course which serves to underpin further study, so getting too carried away trying to understand concepts in quantum physics for instance will not be helpful at this stage.
  • I need to remember to write analytically and not merely descriptively
  • Other books/people that may be worth looking at (perhaps in the long term, if not in relation to this assignment although if there is any time, I will certainly do) –
    From Mandy Thatcher – Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing through other patterns by Nora Bateson
    From Mathew Aldred – The Self Illusion Bruce Hood
    David Eagleman
    Physicist David Bohm’s work

NB – argument against nebulous meaning  –


5 thoughts on “Research notes A5: Gathering my thoughts

  1. A lot of interesting material to explore there. I read one of Nora Bateson’s stories from that book and am now holding myself back from buying it! I had a quick search for the continental approach to philosophy on a site called “The Philosopher’s Beard.” It’s appealing in it’s reflexivity and understanding how people think and act; position of the author, her intentions and motivations. One phrase stuck out ” ….. by deliberately incorporating the difficulties of their subject into the manner of their presentation they require particular effort from the reader to understand”.
    Your middle son’s approach really struck me. If you think about it, in pre-adolescence children aren’t quite one thing or the other in many respects; as adolescence encroaches their features can often blur and shift whilst they go through that metamorphosis into being ‘adult’. We like to put markers on this, celebrate rites of passage. Some are definite of course like menstruation for girls and I can think of ones for boys, but it is a slow process where nothing is quite fixed.
    2000 words will be a challenge with such a wealth of sources but I’m sure you’ll do it.
    Oh yes – Genesis. Translations of translations of translations of different languages. Written by men.


    1. Very good point, written and translated by men. And let’s face it, mostly a list of who beget who. It’s really just about an awful lot of begetting! I like what you say about Alfie’s preference for the term Other. I do think that women (and men) grieve for their lost selves as they travel through adolescence and have to become male or female. I think its a very painful process and we don’t have firm enough rituals to contain it. I’ve added a very interesting link which explores the downsides of absolute truth within form.


  2. Is there a widely accepted version of truth? After all our Law Courts are founded on it (and the testimonies of witnesses to it). Where can we find absolute truth? Your post led me to think then about truth and authenticity – what does the latter mean and is it different from truth?


    1. I’ve had a conversation with John in the past about the word truth. He was very skeptical of it. As an actor we were always searching for a truthful performance, and we would talk about ‘truth’ in those terms, but perhaps that means something different to absolute truth of a situation. In fact, in photography we’d say punctum, or Warhol would refer to the rupture. Lacan has a word for it too. It’s the reveal of the Real, which goes beyond the imaginary and symbolic in those cases. In the Theatre of Cruelty, Artraud talks about unmasking the actor, which is the cruel thing for an audience, as people don’t want to see the Real. We want to see the safe, recognisable Symbolic. It feels dangerous to be faced with the real. However in terms of actual truth, I’m intrigued by the habit of gaslighting – a term to describe sociopathic and narcissistic behaviour, a deliberate playing with truth and reality by one over the other. Such people do it for many reasons. It’s fascinating. Trump does it but it’s not planned in his case – just an awkward embarrassed infantile reaction to being ‘found out’. In the Hitchcock film the character does it on purpose as a form of control. The truth was that he DID play with the lights and make them wobble in order to make the female lead scared, and disorient her. But he lies. And says she’s fragile and imagining it, and therefore needs him to protect her. In this case it’s a terrified response from the perpetrator and to do with his desire to feel powerful because he feels so lacking in power in relation to the Real, I think. So we can say there is ‘Truth’ in the world. But politically and socially dogma is the problem. I have far too many things going on for an essay in my head at the moment and need to focus on one of all these many things.


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