chameleon moves: some ideas about trans-subjectivity

by April Durham . 2  November 2012

Early one morning, the self was gone, carried away by scrupulous refutation of the possibility for Being-human, for ever seeing like God. The singular subject, a self in itself, so dear to the progressive settlement of Modernism, drifted out to sea on a boat of its own construction: colonialism, industrialism, fascism. The self that could improve in Historic time by means of dialectic resolution, toward a Platonic or other ideal was revealed by Foucault as a construction of power, by Derrida as the trace left by language, and by Butler as an often unchosen performance. The discourse of the Self revealed innate, assumed to be being, as wavering object about which lasting claims could not be sustained, and thus removed the viability, with spectacular effect, of the self-contained Self.

The rhetorics of the self, so carefully and thoughtfully mapped out by poststructuralist thinkers, intend to reveal the ways in which discursive arrangements inscribe a notion of subjectivity that seems natural, but is more fully a constructed edifice, and in revealing this construction they posit that it is possible to change the related ways of knowing and constructing diverse versions of the Self toward inclusive, tolerant social configurations. Further, the “linguistic turn” or the “discursive turn” allows a multitude of voices, female and feminine, racialized and colonized, homo- and polysexual, dandified and slovenly, to speak with all their complexity, range, and richness. This vocalization is necessary of course; everyone must speak. Every experience needs to be heard, all possibilities considered, again and again and again.

Still there is something unsatisfying lingering at the edges of the determination of identity constructed in discursive performance, which resists universalizing power strucutures, something that exceeds the containment of the rhetoric. What about seepage? What about the migration of hair oils and bodily fluids, dance moves and facial expressions, lip gloss and lubrication? What happens when the tropes of territoriality seep into neighborhoods from which they do not emanate, in which they are “inauthentic?” What about uncontrolled forces that remain uncontained even when described, that cannot be harnessed, directed, or owned? What if the insistence on territorializing through giving voice becomes another way of racializing, marginalizing, excluding, reinscribing what is being resisted? Perhaps a flaw of using what has been defined as “phal-logo-centric” language to describe everything that is not the phallus in refutation of a dialectics of progress is that the singular subject (redescribed as brown, black, yellow, red; homo-, trans-, bi-; girl-woman, insect, machine) still rests securely at the base of what is liberated. Despite my non-normative proclivities, I am still my own man, woman, companion species, crustaceous decapod, i-device.

Empathy might allow us a moment of intersection, an intersubjective sharing that makes each of us more tolerant of the other. It might. For Husserl, intersubjectivity plays a fundamental role in the formation of both myself as an individual subjectivity and that of some other experiencing subject with whom I engage in an objective spatio-temporal world[i]. There are three components in this exchange of empathy: Me, You, and the space-time continuum in which this exchange occurs. Founded on our beliefs about ourselves, our understanding of an objective world can be largely considered, rational or otherwise, as an ongoing measurement of “Me” in terms of what I perceive in you, through empathic iteration, to be similar, different, or something in between. While intersubjectivity makes it possible to posit an ongoing developmental process, even an evolutionary one in terms of psyche and self, it rests very solidly on the notion that “Self” is and remains contained in the singular bodies sensing it and that “Other” is necessary, if tolerable, to its construction.

It may not seem like such a bad idea: nurturing empathy, tolerance, exchange, evolution in oneself and one’s fellow citizens. Yet, I find that leaving a singular and contained subject lingering unexamined and unchallenged in every deconstruction of the self forges ethical dilemmas that necessarily receive the same kinds of address, the same move toward resolution or admission of the impossibility of resolution, carved into Modernist Humanism that poststructuralism, contemporary feminism, and cultural studies critique.

In this project[ii], I propose unfolding a notion of subjectivity that radically reconsiders the atomistic individual, posited as a separate if integrated part of a larger collective of humanity, and which is at the same time complexly sympathetic to the fact that “each” has “a” body and a psyche with which to perceive, engage, modify, and affect the world. Through the consideration of a particular kind of creative collaborative practice, I propose that aesthetic, processual engagements within situated networks of action/acting provide moments where subjective boundaries become so permeable, so porous, so fuzzy, that they do not hold up and therefore allow a finite event of trans-subjectivity. This extends the possibilities of intersubjectivity in that it slips aside, again momentarily, from the maintenance of individual subjective boundaries, in the instance of engagement: the powerful creative forces affecting those involved in a particular moment move faster and more effectively than our organizing minds can work to contain them.

This sounds like madness, you say, a plunge down Alice’s rabbit hole where names and logics and bodies are frighteningly changeable, horrifyingly illogical, un-locatable as my own. As a palliative for this initial horror, I can only say, it’s temporary. Trans-subjectivity cannot be conceived as a universalizing condition that replaces individuality or singularity. It is more carefully understood as a playful, if frightening slippage that seems unfamiliar but which occurs regularly whether we recognize it or not.

“Why should we play this way?” is the next objection I imagine to arise. “What does this serve?” We are always imagining, proposing communities where each feels safe, has respect for life generally (even non-human vitality), and where difference is tolerated or even nurtured. We know, however, that tolerance, respect, and community are terms with serious limitations, semantically and in practice: tolerance can thinly veil its hateful opposite and can be delivered with condescension, at best; respect for others is tied intimately with respect for oneself, a quality that goes under-tended in a culture intent on keeping its consumer desiring. Notions of “respect,” therefore often stem from hierarchical qualifications based on accumulation of property, knowledge, status, or even offenses (if one is more inclined to the criminal side of things), and can extend only with difficulty to those without these attributes; community of course has many problems, including assumptions around the (again heirarchized) validity of particular “core values” that assume a very narrow notion of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, in and out, resulting in the ultimate exclusion of anyone deviating from these narrow trenches of identificatory “core-ness.”

Because trans-subjectivity arises through intensity, it is only loosely connected to rational formations of identity or to stratifying power structures. It is the result of a commitment to creativity in a particular situation that makes manifest a kind of illogical, “wishful,” and processual experience in which known structures are challenged, even on quantum levels, and through which individuals cannot pass unaffected. I am evolving my theory of trans-subjectivity, at least in terms of inception, through my own experience with a self-managed artists’ working group, Multipoint, constituted in various forms and in different geographies, over the last twelve or so years. The experience has been very particular, and while I will bring other collaborative creative practices and narratives to bear in comparison and in conjunction upon my own experience, the wealth of strange and subtle perplexity evoked by the practice in which I have engaged with many people over these years offers an important basis for me to puzzle through the consequences of both the process and the effects of working in this way. While I still have “my own” creative and scholarly practices, the experiences occurring within the group practice has radically altered my way of perceiving myself, in relation, as both a producer of things and ideas, and as a friend, colleague, and member of various communities. This alteration is what I intend to explore here with all its radical implications and violent hopefulness, toward something that might be more than wishful, utopic desire.


[i] Beyer, Christian, “Edmund Husserl”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries /husserl/>.

[ii] I am referring here to my dissertation project “The Chameleon’s Way Through: Generating Trans-Subjectivity in Creative Collaborative Practice.”

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Play with Me: Interactive De-Struct[ion]ure at the Museum of Latin-American Art

a collaborative visit . by April Durham . 17 August 2012

Long Beach is about 20 minutes southwest of the crumbly LA neighborhood where I am spending a sticky-baked summer. I am too tired to drive and Pam prefers to pilot anyway. It’s already needle hot when we leave at 10:23 am. The 110 to the 5 to the 60 to the 710. Aquarium exit to Broadway to Alamitos. The parking lot is mostly empty and (finally) a sea breeze teases us toward the door. The space is so professional, so institutionally proper, with excellent air conditioning, gleaming floors, and very quietly polite security guards. The museum avoids the obvious tropes of Latino-ism, tropical frescoes, colorful tile, dense installation. Instead, minimal institutional space sanctions resistance, creating a strange, almost discomfiting celebration of the ways in which its constituency creatively reflects on its experience of the world: a globalized, not-particularly-supportive, often-exploitative world.

Why interactivity? The term implies, these days, a high level of technological interface, a mediating of the “natural” world by the tools of the cyber terrain. But there are only two pieces with an overtly technological structure: Deep Thought V.2, by Dream Addictive, brings to mind boardwalk fortune telling machines, where touching bolt-like “sensors” connect the traveller to a machine that renders thoughts as biofeedback, eventually spitting out a slip of paper with a Spanish interpretation of the imagination. The other involves sitting inside a little oval hut made from egg cartons and waving hands in front of sensors that emit the sounds of the Tijuana streets. Neither of these pieces functions with the slick, fault-proof necessity of the digital interface though. The sense is that they repeat where they should progress or they reset because the physical touch is too tenuous, issuing faults or making frailty and apparatic vulnerability transparent to that of the “natural” human. Fear of too much interface drives the interaction with these works more than a streamlining of the meat-to-machine we’ve grown to expect à la Sleep Dealer.

An air bladder made from pages of An Introduction to Psychoanalysis and other books by Freud that the viewer can enter, a candy-finish painting the viewer can touch, and a wall of plastic funerary flowers to which the viewer can add. Only uncertainly interactive, these works seem shy and tentative, failing to invite the masterful engagement humans are used to exercising with their digital partners (AKA computers or games). Appearing as traditional sculptures, the viewer hesitates to touch. The guards stand by looking pointedly to see if you will touch, in fact. But beautifully trained, they kindly, gently encourage, lifting edges, coax the shedding of various bits of clothing, soothingly offer instructions on precisely how to interact.

Pressing on the slick sunset finish of Rubén Ortiz-Torres’ painting, you see the shadow of your hand beside that of your friend and then it fades as if you were never there. The nature of this interactivity is not immersive, not consuming in the way a Gibsonian, jacked-in cybersurfer (or an MMORPG player) experiences/becomes. Rather, it is consuming in the way of a penetrating glance cast by a stranger in a dark public gathering place that catches the receiver in the middle of the chest and is long remembered, even though it was perhaps the most momentary experience of one’s life. The lingering questions: who, why, what… transmitted in the print, the look, the air between ebb and flow through Memory, layered upon the fading imprint of body heat cast by whatever number of viewers dared to touch the same surface.

If interactivity, in today’s online gaming world and even for more pedestrian users like bloggers, vloggers, and social networkers, implies a certain machine-to-human-to-human interaction, with a performative component, the interactive quotient of these works is shockingly “lo-tek.” The concerns of high and low, however, are shared: what does it mean to navigate the political, aesthetic, and social (aren’t they the same in a way?) terrains of shared space/time? Is is possible to witness the “Other’s” sensations/cognitions, material-semiotic struggles, mediated in objects, subjectivities, and histories encountered in the institutional setting (be that the museum or Google Chrome)? What is the nature of that connection? How to describe it? Faulty, tenuous, vulnerable, pedantic, shrill, violent, contained, noisy, ephemeral, colored, blocked, or elegiac? What about gaps, glitches, non-functionality, errors, obviousness, inelegance, and awkwardness? Does my interface accommodate embarrassment, illiteracy, clumsiness, incompetence? While the stakes in on-line interactivity hinge on these last attributes being ameliorated through the discipline of practice, the works in this show leverage the incapacity of the viewer to prepare her laboring body for skilled engagement. Frailty and inability are prized when succumbing to the floating weight of Freud’s knowledge or the faux-foliage of funerary decor of  Alberto Baraya.

The nest built by Franklin Cassaro of pages from books by Sigmund Freud, taped together with plastic packing material, breathes a welcome to its strange interior. “I could lie in here all day,” says my companion. “Yeah,” I sigh. Highly legible but impossible to “read,” these familiar texts, so important to 20th century thought, culture, and social/psychical understanding float around like a breathing womb, a lung-abyss that allows in light, receives the air from a rotating fan just outside, but does not encourage exit. Even the kindly young guard who so attentively lifts the edge so you can enter, is nowhere to be found when you want to leave. You have to struggle against the rigidity (however frail) of the tape, and the concern for damaging the already creased and worried edges of the text, to trip out awkwardly and straighten your skirt, and wonder about who might notice your dirty knees. While deliciously inviting, the interactivity solicited by this work is precarious, and if not imprisoning, then certainly sticky and all the more maddening thanks to its beauty.

In the lobby of the museum, Federico Herrero offers the closest thing to immersive interactivity in a piece comprised of old, painted cardboard, little boxes, sticks, and styrofoam balls, all dusty and a bit decrepit. This work “translates the mix of colors, shapes, and forms of the streets of San José, Costa Rica—and the tropical landscape that surrounds the city, onto gallery walls,” or so says the museum website. The artist offers a little space, like that in a preschool, where components that might be used to make the throw-away artworks that fascinate my friend and me, comprising each of our own art practices (differently but in a shared context) can be moved around at will, bent, walked upon, hidden under, stacked. I reach out and move a stick as we pass by the jumble and a little tower of stuff tumbles over, almost landing on my foot. Interactivity can be dangerous, first lesson. I look to see if the security guard is ready to wrestle me to the ground, but he goes on checking things on a list and ignores me. “Pam,” I whisper. “I think we can play.” Pam, of course, doesn’t need another nudge and begins dealing out slabs of wasted cardboard in various shades of green in piles that appear random but which are governed by her highly honed aesthetic sense. I move some sticks and a ball into a tight grid at one corner. Then I make a little ramp and hope a ball will roll down it.

We stay here the longest, really playing, really having fun and never at all intimidated, cautioned, or constrained by the fact that we are professional artists, serious women, not-super young, creative urchins lingering between the spaces sanctioned for play and those made political by the kind of gesture exercised within-upon them. We wonder for a moment, loving cardboard, thinking about fish, wishing it could stay this way, desire unmediated in a falling-down structure that is oh so pretty all the same.