Speaking Difference

Reading Bourriaud’s The Radicant:

Bourriaud does not believe that the paradigm of postmodern reason is working, with the implication that multiculturalism’s use-value is waning as well. As a critique of modernism’s shortcomings, the tenets of postcolonialism lead to either “absolute relativism or to a piling up of ‘essentialisms'” that, in extreme interpretations, make dialogue impossible across cultural difference (25). These are the instances where one feels they cannot contribute to a conversation that is not properly their own for fear of offending.

It is bridging or negating this so-called impossibility that I am interested in. There is a conversation to be had between you and I, regardless of the disparities between the who or what or where of our identities, and the way this will be possible is through translation. Bourriaud cautions that avoiding these conversations, especially when they would be hard, mutates a well-meaning sentiment (recognition of the other’s subject position) into a politeness that denies their right to fully participate.

Or, attempts at translation are more valuable than manners. When we view “non-Western artists as guests to be treated with politeness, and not as full-fledged actors on the the cultural scene in their own right,” we propagate a “peaceful and sterile coexistence of reified cultures” at the expense of “a state of cooperation among cultures” (27-28). We can speak difference through a negotiation of the common terms of translation.

Bourriaud calls out the major motif of postmodernism as being “that the origin thus takes precedence over the destination in the life of forms and ideas,” meaning that history in the singular, if we are to move beyond postmodernism, will have to give way to history in the plural (28). In the altermodern future that Bourriaud imagines, a culturally diverse artist will no longer be held up as a representative of the diversity that the Western world sees in them–new commonalities will be sought out and cultivated. Using translation as a tool, “one denies neither the unspeakable nor possible opacities of meaning, since every translation is inevitably incomplete and leaves behind an irreducible remainder” (30). What we give up in exchange for the altermodern is the idea of an official history. What we gain with the altermodern is the potential to speak and be understood, to be fruitfully challenged.

However, this is not to advocate another incarnation of relativism whereby each artist’s work is judged in accordance with the norms of their culture. Says Bourriaud, “In an era in which ancient particularities are being eradicated in the name of economic efficiency, aesthetic multiculturalism urges us to examine with particular care cultural codes that are on the path to extinction, and in doing so makes contemporary art into a conservatory of traditions and identities that are in reality being wiped out by globalization” (29). This can be circumvented when a multiplicity of cultural codes are harmonized in ways that resonate with their histories; this can be circumvented by performing translation.

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2 thoughts on “

  1. alex says:

    [ Bourriaud calls out the major motif of postmodernism as being “that the origin thus takes precedence over the destination in the life of forms and ideas,” meaning that history in the singular, if we are to move beyond postmodernism, will have to give way to history in the plural. ]

    i think i know what kind of post-modernity he is referring to, but let’s nonetheless stop for a moment to acknowledge that this is a funny thing to say about other kinds of post-modernity. … history in the singular is that to which post-modernity ascribed?… i’m not sure how well that fits with the idea that conversations couldn’t be had between differents on account of one respecting the other’s inaccessible roots. sounds more like it was understood the history was plural, but that attempts to make that plurality conversant maybe haven’t proven as fruitful as they could thusfar…

    “In an era in which ancient particularities are being eradicated in the name of economic efficiency, aesthetic multiculturalism urges us to examine with particular care cultural codes that are on the path to extinction, and in doing so makes contemporary art into a conservatory of traditions and identities that are in reality being wiped out by globalization.”

    i like this idea… maybe therein lies some part of the impetus to documentary that he and you refer to in the post that follows this.

    but i’m not necessarily sure i’m clear how you are treating this quotation within the paragraph… is it this conservationist tendency that can be circumvented or is it the loss of cultural codes that can be circumvented?

    hai shai

    • oh hai ahlicks…

      Postmodernism is, in so many ways, about refuting the idea of master narratives, and it does seem like a strange thing to say that postmodernism is also obsessed with origins. What Bourriaud is getting at by this is that postmodernism operates on a logic of membership. I am a gender, I have a particular ancestry, I have a sexuality, I am from a country. Either one or all of these abstracted facts can function as identity in postmodernism. I agree with Bourriaud in thinking that these practices of identification are complexly absurd becuase birthright matters more than how we choose to manifest these aspects of our identity. This is what he’s getting at with the idea of destination, that the performance of my gender is more-so my identity than a male or female checkbox on my birth certificate.

      In postmodernism, a person with their collective identities becomes a spokesperson for the things they embody, which is met with “a kind of postmodern aesthetic courtesy, an attitude that consists of refusing to pass critical judgement for fear of ruffling the sensitivity of the other” [27]. Bourriaud thinks that this courtesy stands in the way of constructive critique across difference and I think that he thinks it is inherent to the system of postmodenism and thus his advocating the altermodern, a paradigm shift in the way we come to each other.

      As for that quote about globalization eradicating ancient particularities, I think that Bourriaud is holding up the conservationist tendency as a mark against multiculturalism. I think that he would say that cultural codes are living, that they come into and out of existence with every person who takes them on and mutates them by way of embodiment. But you raise an interesting point about how the machine of history functions. How can a conservationist impulse coincide with an inevitable and natural evolution of social forms and interactions? Consider how language evolves. Or, consider urban Aboriginals.

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