Ghosts and the Seeing of Doxa

Links to other writings: Ghosts, Grassi text, Hearing Bertolt Brecht, Shopping and Looking

Text of presentation I gave at the University of London – Senate House, Wed 19th September 2012. The presentation was part of ‘Hosting 8:ghostmakers 1′, curated by Sarah Sparkes’ GHost project.

“GHost is a visual arts and creative research project which brings together artists, writers, academics, scientists, curators researchers and others for workshops, so-called Hostings and exhibitions and screenings of moving image art.”

Presentation Text
In this talk I will discuss a recently completed body of artworks, Ghosts. A series of watercolour paintings of figures depicted as spectral entities, engaged in everyday activities of shopping, talking and rioting. This work is part of my ongoing research into painting’s pictorial function, theorized through structures of speech, grounded in rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking.

Previous to this I curated an exhibition commissioned for the 2010 British Art Show Fringe, ‘Hearing Bertolt Brecht’. This took Brecht’s 1947 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee as its theme. The exhibition combined painting, audio, text and sculpture, in a restaging of Brecht’s public interrogation. Theorized through Martin Heidegger’s analysis of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the work emphasized the role of listening in the formation of opinion, whether political or aesthetic. Here opinion is a kind of self-evident seeing or ‘view’. The role of visitors to the exhibition was conceived as mirroring the role of the audience at the original 1947 hearing. Both form opinions on the basis of the rhetorical situation being played out before them.

Ghosts builds on this research into the relationship between art, rhetoric and opinion. Its focus is on representing the working classes as being scarcely visible, out of sight, not in view, yet with the capacity to show themselves as suddenly threatening. This is achieved through a metaphor of the ghostly, expressed in images of light and dark.

Rhetoric, like figurative painting, communicates through images. These are expressed as figures of speech or tropes, what Nietzsche calls ‘nonliteral significations’. For Ernesto Grassi, the metaphor is the ‘most important figure of speech’ , because of its capacity to uncover and display the hidden, to ‘lead to light’ what is veiled. We normally associate ghosts and related feelings of dread and fear with darkness, but as Heidegger points out we can also experience fear in the full light of day.

The work was made in two parts. An initial group of paintings depicts shoppers coming and going, walking and talking, gathered and dispersed in the shopping centre of the council estate where I grew up. I chose watercolour as the medium to make the works for a number of reasons. Like the subjects of the paintings it is a somewhat overlooked medium. I was also attracted by its technical demands. Unlike oil painting it requires a more systematic way of working, the sequence of making the images has to be thought out in advance. I also feel watercolour is better suited to the broader, less detailed, form of representation that this work demanded. Furthermore watercolour has a particular capacity to represent light and dark, as such it allowed me immediate practical access to the metaphor at the heart of the work.

The metaphor of ghosts only became apparent with the completion of the second group of works, paintings based upon images of last year’s riots. It was these paintings, which gave the work its overall structural unity, expressed through the metaphor of the ghostly. The view of the rioters as ghosts emerged in the process of painting them. Their hooded and disguised appearance, their frenetic and threatening behaviour, lead me to understand them as ghosts. Once seen this metaphor was enacted in the work, through depictions of hooded and masked figures emerging into light or dark.

The metaphor was then applied to the earlier group of works. This capacity to extend the metaphor beyond its original focus, speaks to our capacity to revise our understanding of what we see, a property central to rhetoric’s power to persuade, to change our opinion. My thesis is that metaphorical representation, whether in art or speech, is dependent upon this alternate seeing. This is seeing as ‘view’ or ‘opinion’, expressed in the Greek term doxa.

I will now outline my understanding of this ‘doxic seeing’ and its connection to metaphor’s capacity to uncover and capture the hidden. Drawing upon the writings on rhetoric of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Ernesto Grassi. Nietzsche’s 1873 Notes on Rhetoric are seen by some as one of the origins of modern discourse theory, Heidegger’s 1924 analysis of Aristotle’s Rhetoric the other. Grassi develops Heidegger’s thinking further within the context of Italian Humanism’s anti-rationalist enterprise.

Although rhetoric is largely unfamiliar as a representational concept, we are perhaps more aware of its weaknesses. It can appear to us as artificial, mainly because of its apparent subjectivity and lack of naturalness. Indeed, we, as what Nietzsche calls ‘unrefined speech empiricists’, use the term ‘rhetorical’ as a reproof when we feel we can detect natural forms of language being exaggerated. We are also distrustful of its claims – ‘rhetorical’ can mean untruthful. These suspicions may in part be explained through taste, but they are also evidence of a misunderstanding of rhetoric’s focus and aim.

Rhetoric is not a species of logic, which uses language to create knowledge, through an appeal to reason. The aim of rhetoric, according to Nietzsche, is to ‘convey to others a subjective impulse and its acceptance.’  Nietzsche also says rhetoric should be thought as an art that reflects language’s hidden desire to convey doxa, rather than knowledge. As such rhetoric is a guide to how we communicate, in particular how we persuasively convey the concernful aspects, which we detect in everyday concrete situations, as concernful.

Language, like rhetoric, extracts from these situations that which speaks for their persuasive character, and communicates them in images. It does this not by communicating a realistic description or theoretical interpretation of what it sees, instead what we communicate is given, and taken, as an ‘opinion’ or a ‘view’ of the matter. This ‘opinion’ is the doxa.

Our doxa is sharable with others because of a particular characteristic, in doxic seeing we trust what is seen, it is self-evident, i.e. without the need for further theoretical clarification. Doxa says ‘yes’ to what is observed, meaning we understand that what we see is what it looks like. Yet in this yes-saying, doxa does not take what it sees as true, i.e. as rational knowledge. As Grassi points out, while doxa, as opinion, and knowledge can both be true, opinion, unlike rational knowledge, has within it a capacity for being otherwise. Thus doxic seeing is suspended between certainty and change, we believe what we see, but that seeing is conditioned by an understanding that it can be altered.

Heidegger distinguishes a number of characteristics of doxa, which speak to its ‘revisability’ i.e. its intrinsic uncertainty, its fugitive nature. The peculiar authority of doxa (which has a connection to gossip) is derived from others who stand behind it. The opinion may be expressed by one, but its authority lies in it being taken as the expression of the many, yet these others can never be found.

Our opinions belong to us, yet they are never ours exclusively, others can have the same opinion, furthermore they are intended to be shared. As such they are expressions of our commonality, what Heidegger calls our ‘being-with-one-another’. Yet intrinsic to this communal sharing of views, is a potential for doxa to be experienced antagonistically. Others can have a different view to ours. While doxa can be an expression of our being-with-one-another, it can also be an expression of what Heidegger calls our ‘being-against-one-another’ . Thus doxic seeing has an intrinsic duality, giving it the capacity to accommodate the sudden appearance of the riots, that which was understood as calm, is now understood as threatening.

Rhetoric, like language itself, exploits doxa in its drive towards persuasive speech. It does this by communicating in images of the everyday, expressed in figures of speech or tropes. The term ‘figure’ is based on a Latin translation of the Greek schema, which means ‘outline’. Aristotle says that the schema ‘determines what sort of thing it is in the look’ , the outline defines the body.

In our doxic seeing these figurative images are taken as true, we say ‘yes’ to them. Yet the figure alone does not give us the whole of the meaning of that which is before us. What we see before us in the figure can be an accurate representation, yet it will not be persuasive if we stop at the outline pure and simple. An image of a thing that aims at exactness of representation lacks what Aristotle calls dynamis, which Heidegger translates as possibility.

Metaphor depends on the creation of dynamis to make the images it produces persuasive, by bringing ‘us something unusual, unexpected, and new.’  Traditionally the creation of a metaphor is thought to depend on the capacity of the speaker, to go beyond what is immediately apparent, to see the connection between ‘what is actually the most widely separated’ . Thus the creator of the metaphor, in seeing this possibility, establishes the ground for a transference of meaning from what is before us to something beyond. This transference is the metapherein.

When I first approach the working class as a subject for art, the idea I have, expressed in the first set of images, is shadowy, unclear and in some cases slightly threatening. Others can share this opinion, but equally others can disagree. These images are inarticulate static representations, they are resistant to being transferred, preventing the view that I express in them becoming the view of others. These images have the character of analogy.

Only after the metapherein has been instigated as a series of transfers, does the dynamis of the images as ghostly, come into view. In the creation of the second set of images, activated by scenes of rioting I detect an immediate aspect of the ghostly, which finds ultimate expression in images of light and dark. This allows the two sets of images to be brought together, in a further metaphorical transfer.

My original representation of the working class subjects as vague, shadowy, and threatening, finds voice when it is carried over and joined to the next set of images, through the metaphor of the ghostly, expressed through representations of light. The image is further encapsulated, held in place by the works’ rhetorical title, Ghosts.

Thus metaphor has the capacity to express the ghostly, bringing the otherworldly into the concrete everyday. As Grassi points out this is scientific rationalism’s fundamental objection to metaphor and hence to rhetoric. If what we see can be seen as something else, then the ground of logical certainty is dissolved. Yet for Grassi this dissolution of ground is the essence of the poetic. In dissolving certainty the abyss (abgrund) on which all belief rests is revealed. The groundless saying of the poetic both reveals and conceals Being, which, like a ghost, appears and departs.

Derek Hampson