The Promise of the False

The origin of this project lies in my reading of Martin Heidegger’s analysis of Plato’s Theaetetus, a dialogue which seeks to answer the question “what is knowledge?” Knowledge is understood, in this context, as the “possession of truth,” yet, somewhat paradoxically, the figure of truth’s opposite, the false, takes centre stage in Heidegger’s account.

According to Gilles Deleuze, in his essay “Plato and the Simulacrum,” the aim of many of Plato’s dialogues is “to hunt down the false…,” in order to keep it “chained in the depths.” For Heidegger the significance of the Theaetetus is that for the first (and last) time the false is released from its chains, allowing it to demonstrate its capacity to “disturb and amaze.” It is a capacity that will lay dormant, until Deleuze, in the twentieth century, re-imagines the false as a force of philosophical and artistic creation.

The Aviary – the role of memory, the realm of doxa
This project builds on these foundations in order to explore the promise that the false holds for artistic practice. This will be done through an exhibition; The Aviary, which will take as its starting point two sensory images, two similes that appear in the Theaetetus: the wax mass (slab) and the aviary. Taken together these images symbolise memory as a faculty, through which we have access to all of our past perceptions, stored as imprints in wax and as birds in an aviary. We can have these perceptions in two ways; as disregarded possessions, or we can make them present again, by actively bringing them to mind.

What these similes ultimately point to is that the same thing can be both present and absent and by extension true and false. This is the realm of the simulacrum, the false image, in front of which we make a decision on what we see, not only from what is before us, but also from what we have stored within us. I can therefore see what is present before me as that which is absent, and vice versa. This ambiguity finds its expression in doxa, a seeing aided by memory, intrinsic to which is the capacity to be mistaken. The seeing of doxa is never true or false, instead it operates in a sphere of free-play, it twists and turns, sometimes seeing what is false and sometimes not.  In other words what is seen can seem like one thing and it can seem like another. This leads Socrates to say that “doxa has two faces,” that which we encounter in doxic seeing can be both true and false.

Plato’s use of sensory images dramatises the structure of memory. This approach will be extended into the fabric of the exhibition. Like the wax mass and the aviary, the gallery will be regarded as a container. Like the aviary it will hold birds, specifically pigeons, but in three ways: they will be there as paintings I have made, based on illustrations in Fulton’s Book of Pigeons, a highly regarded book from 1880 which attempts to document all the types of domestic pigeons then extant; a copy of which will be displayed in the gallery. Finally, a further representation of pigeons will also be there in the form of a recording of Olivier Messiaen’s 1929 prelude for piano: La Colombe (The Dove).

Overall, the three sets of work in this exhibition occupy the uncertain territory of the simulacrum, each appearing as mirages of a supposed absent original. Hampson’s paintings combine birds with their imagined habitats of dovecote and painting. Fulton’s book illustrates a project of doomed taxonomy, ever more outlandish variations, in terms of name and image, cannot disguise that, at their heart, all the birds displayed within are pigeons. Messiaen’s La Colombe, described by its composer as “orange, veined with violet,” is often cited as an example of his synaesthesia at work, seeing one thing as another, in this case colour in place of sound. Finally, the viewer plays a role in this re-enactment, making the works both absent and present through their mobile acts of looking and listening.

Derek Hampson

Further Reading
Part One of my commentary on Heidegger’s interpretation of the Theaetetus
Part Two of my commentary on Heidegger’s interpretation of the Theaetetus
My commentary on Gilles Deleuze’s essay “Plato and the Simulacrum”

Theaetetus Posts
Deleuze Posts