Witness the Gift of Seeing

Essay from my recently published book, Witness

This text speculates on the nature of seeing and speaking. It asks how that which comes into being through language can be carried over, from a verbal to a visual form, while maintaining the urgency of the spoken word.

I will begin with a text that initiated just such a process of transcription in my own work. This is an account of a murder that took place on April 29th 2006, at Williamson Drive, Helensburgh, where Paul Lafferty killed Bryan Folan. The following report of the event and Lafferty’s trial, is taken from the Lennox Herald, dated November 9th 2006. The story, headlined; Cheers as murder accused walks free, reports;

“… just prior to his death Folan had threatened to “plug” Lafferty after a row broke out over a broken coffee table. Lafferty, 42, was charged with Folan’s murder. He himself suffered 17 serious stab wounds, which resulted in his heart stopping twice as medics fought to save him. He inflicted the fatal wound while cowering on his knees as his friend rained knife blows down on him.

According to witness Innes Wiseman, Folan had turned up at Lafferty’s home “grumpy and crabbit”, and looking a bit the worse for wear; although Lafferty was friendly enough to him. Mr Wiseman said the two men started arguing about a coffee table that had been smashed earlier, and Folan threw a plant pot at Lafferty after he asked him to leave.

Punches were thrown but they were separated and Folan went outside, where he was heard shouting: “Come down here, ya prick. Let’s sort this oot. I’m gonnae plug
ye.” Lafferty grabbed a knife and went downstairs where screams were heard. Mr Wiseman added: “Next thing Paul was in the close crawling up the stairs, injured and bleeding and I laid him on a couch. He was bleeding all over. It was a night I never want to remember.”

Folan died from a single one-inch knife wound that entered his chest through his ribs and severed his aorta. He also had a minor wound to the upper arm and cuts to his hands and fingers.

Antoinette Folan, 43, the victim’s widow, said she saw the confrontation outside the block and called 999 on her mobile, telling the operator: “I think there’s going to be a murder here.” She told the court: “I saw Brian making actions like he was stabbing Paul Lafferty.”

At Lafferty’s trial she was asked, by advocate depute Kevin McCallum, why her evidence differed from her police statement, she replied: “My husband was just murdered and I’d just viewed his body in the morgue. I was traumatised.” Mrs Folan added: “I pulled Brian’s arm and saw the knife in his hand. I pulled him out the close and he went down the steps and collapsed. I thought he was just exhausted. I looked back and saw Paul Lafferty crawling up the stairs.”

Gordon McNaughton, accident and emergency consultant at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, where both men were taken, described Lafferty’s case as “one of the worst and most sustained stabbing assaults I’d ever examined.” Dr McNaughton said possibly three knives had been used on him.

Witnesses saw Folan’s daughters Cheryl, 26, and Amanda, 20, at the scene but both denied stabbing Lafferty. Cheryl admitted taking two knives to the scene and three blades were recovered from Lafferty’s blood-soaked flat.

Lafferty, who had claimed self-defence, was found not guilty of fighting with and murdering Folan and committing the offences on two bail orders – one imposed two days before the killing.

Outside court he said: “I’m obviously delighted to be free after being inside for eight months.”

The effects of these events have continued to ripple out. Paul Lafferty’s daughter, Niamh, who witnessed the fight, later committed suicide, unable to bear the pain of what she had seen. This led in turn to Lafferty taking his own life.

On reading the newspaper report, I was moved from a state of unconcern to one of heightened disquiet. Furthermore, my encounter with the written narrative, has driven me to create the works of art in this book, linocuts which use these events as their subject matter.

The constants here are movement and change. The story is an account of sudden, violent and fearsome movement. I am in turn changed by the story, as is the story when I translate it from a written to a visual form.

How should we think about this process of movement, indicative of change, instigated in experiences of fear and apprehension? Movement and its relationship to Being, to what is, is central to philosophy, which calls it kinesis. Yet, somewhat paradoxically it is the opposite of kinesis, stasis, which has its roots in fear; that is the fear that what is, might, at some point, cease to be. For Martin Heidegger, the drive from early philosophy onwards, was to establish Being as ‘being-always-present’ (2009, 196), i.e. static. The experiences of the threatening and the enigmatic, which are expressed in kinesis, are thereby absorbed into the familiar. This finds its ultimate expression in the idea that the ‘highest possibility of existence … is pure theorein’ (197), where ‘pure theorein’ means an untroubled contemplation of the world.

For me, as a figurative artist, the challenge is to communicate, in my artworks, what is apprehend in my encounter with the murderous events recounted in the article. If these actions are to be seen again – and again – they cannot be expressed in the static seeing of pure theorein, and the detached expression it gives rise to. What the artwork needs to transmit is not a series of facts, faithfully represented, but a series of possibilities. Moments, in which one and another can enter into a dynamic comportment towards that which is unveiled, in the exhibitive givenness of the work of art.

Rather than showing, the figurative artwork gives its subject to the observant viewer. The process through which the work comes into being can then be thought as a series of gifts. This is reflected in a question (slightly rephrased) that Martin Heidegger asks of the artistic process in The Origin of the Work of Art;
‘what is pregiven to the artist, and how is it given, so that it can then be regiven in the artwork?’ (1993, 163).
Heidegger’s question asks how the work of art comes into Being through its givenness. Not only the givenness of the artwork, but of the things that are used in the making of the work of art. In asking about givenness the question asks about that which is given, the gift.

A clue to my approach to addressing this question, can be seen in Heidegger’s question itself. Here a certain temporality can be detected. The question refers to the past ‘pregiven’, the present ‘given’ and the future ‘regiven’. Time will be seen to be central to the concept of givenness, Jacques Derrida says ‘… where there is gift, there is time’ (41). Furthermore the association with time connects the gift to movement and therefore to change.

What is the gift? The anthropologist Marcel Mauss, in his writing on potlach and other gift-giving festivals, sees gift-giving as a practice of give and take. That which is given, the gift, is taken, in order to be regiven, in a cycle of exchange. Is this the correct way to understand the givenness of the newspaper story? An essentially economic relationship, between the original murderous event, its report in the newspaper, my encounter with it and its eventual emergence as a work of art. Thought in this way, is to understand the reported event as a matter at hand, a matter that I take, in order to work with. Here the subject is thought as material, to be used in the creation of an artwork. The material then fits into a process of technical production that leads to the creation of the artwork.

In The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger discusses the concept of production, using it to distinguish between an artistic and a craft use of materials. Simply put, whereas the latter uses material up, the former lets the material, as the matter it is, show itself – come to presence as the given.

So for example, a worker, in producing an axe, uses the material at hand, the wood and metal. The material is taken into the service of the axe in order to support those essential determinations of it as equipment, that is, its usefulness and reliability. The material disappears into usefulness, the less it resists vanishing into usefulness, the better and more suitable it is for the task of producing an axe that is both useful and reliable.

On the other hand, the artist, in using the same material, to create a sculpture, does not use the material up, does not cause it to disappear. Instead the work of art allows the material to be set forth as the material it is, to become present as presence. In so doing, the artwork reveals the ‘firmness and pliancy’ of the wood and the ‘hardness and luster’ of the metal. Rather than being produced, the sculpture is ‘set forth’ out of the material. Here ‘to set forth’ is a literal translation of the German herstellung – production, meaning, to come to presence as the material, the matter it is.

Defining the process of art-making as a form of equipmental production, a process of fabrication, places its theorization in the field of the ontic, that is, in the realm of the substance and materiality of entities. Art-making is then thought as a process in which materials disappear into the object made, allowing only the form of what is made to display itself. In this definition, art creates a form that speaks primarily through its unthought usefulness and reliability. That which we might loosely term its aesthetic form, is only there as a secondary consideration. In fabrication, the material is fixed in place by the needs of that which is produced. On the other hand, production, thought as an artistic setting-forth, allows us to understand how what is encountered, shows itself as the Being it is.

Martin Heidegger, in his relentless account of Being’s meanings and manifestations, finds that ‘every concept of being has a specific double-character to its meaning’ (2009, 20). For example, beings are things, yet they also have Being, we can say each being ‘is’; this is the ontological difference. Being can be concealed or unconcealed; this is Being as truth or aletheia. His later understanding prioritises Being as presence, expressed in a double character of givenness and withdrawal.

As we have seen, presence is what is given in our encounter with the materiality of the work of art. Rather than understanding the newspaper story as some kind of raw material to be worked with, I will focus my analysis on the givenness of the matter at stake in the reported event. This will be developed through Heidegger’s writing on the given in the context of time and Being within the purview of art, particularly painting. Taking my lead from Heidegger’s analysis of art, in The Origin of the Work of Art, and from my own work as an artist, I will work backwards towards the events described in the narrative of the written article. Asking how the newspaper report gives that which it speaks of. Before speculating, how that which is given, can be carried over, from one form to another, preserving its mode of dynamism.

The initial approach will be through looking at a work of art, enquiring, what, in its appearance, distinguishes the artwork from equipment? We are asking, how does a work of art show itself – how is it given? As we have seen usefulness is the basic feature of the tool, a feature that ‘flashes at us and thereby is present’ (1993, 154). Heidegger’s answer to the question of what is given by the work of art is ‘self-subsistence’. The artwork has a certain repose, a certain closed refusal, a resting within itself. This is evidenced by our difficulty in saying what the work of art is, or as Merleau-Ponty says where the work is. Yet the work is there, we can see it, we can look at it.

Rather than a form of rest, Heidegger defines the repose of the work of art as a ‘state of motion’ a ‘happening’ (174), in which the artwork ‘sets up’ the world while ‘setting forth’ the earth, holding them in what he terms a state of ‘strife’. This dynamic holding in place of the world and earth will later be seen reflected in the relationship between time and Being, a relationship at the foundation of the givenness of presence. Before that I will outline my understanding of the concepts of world and earth and what they tell us about the artwork in terms of presence.

What is world, what is earth? The world is that which constantly strives to show itself, it is the totality of our projects, our hopes and fears, the decisions we make individually and communally. While the world seeks to show itself, the earth and the things of it, the tree, the hill, the stream, shrink from disclosure – they are self-secluding. Each thing of the earth is there in the same not-knowing-of-one-another. This is not the disappearance of materials into usefulness that we witnessed in the tool. Things of the earth have their presence by what is there, alongside.
‘Here flows the bordering stream, restful within itself, which delimits everything present in its presencing’ (172).
The artwork, as a work, holds the world and the earth and the things of each in view, in the oppositional intensity of ‘strife’. Therefore the work of art has the character of world, it is open, it wants to be seen. It also has the character of earth, a refusal with the character of self-secluding.

In the artwork holding the earth and world in this ‘intimacy of strife’ there is a dynamic happening of truth. Here truth is understood through the Greek word alêtheia, which is translated as ‘unconcealment’. What is unconcealed is Being. It is important to understand that in Heidegger’s analysis of truth as alêtheia, he thinks the term as a privative. The prefix ‘a’ indicates the ‘not’, signifying that the primary idea of the term is ‘lath’, to be concealed. A-letheia therefore means not-concealed. The unconcealed emerges from the concealed. The word, what is spoken (logos), and the work of art, both aim at bringing Beings to light as unconcealed. Yet in this unconcealment there is still the hidden.

This sense of the unsettling duality of Being is a constant in all our dealings. In coming to presence there is also withdrawal. In the midst of beings there is concealment. Beings can refuse to be unconcealed or they can pretend to be other than what they are. On a foggy day things are hidden, we can put things down then have to hunt for them, we can fail to recognize someone we know, or conversely see something as what it is not. Rather than seeking to overcome this essential contingency, Heidegger’s ontology embraces it. The fundamental character of Being is this constant interplay between showing and hiding. Heidegger says that ‘concealment is the provenance of truth as unconcealment’. This mirrors the desire of the earth to be secluded and of the world for release, echoed in the painting’s capacity to show but not to be seen. This leads Heidegger to say “the essence of truth is un-truth” (180).

In the work of art, truth is at work, revealing, unconcealing and bringing to presence, it is dynamic, it partakes in movement – kinesis. In Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, Heiddeger describes dynamis as a category of kinesis, and defines it as a mode of being of a Being that is present as complete (entelechia). A dynamic being is one that is present as complete and which has the potential, the dynamis, to be something other.

To illustrate this; when we encounter a tree, it stands there as a tree, as complete, its telos, its end, is to be a tree. Yet it can be a fallen tree, which then becomes a tree trunk. It then has the potential, the dynamis, to be made into furniture. Heidegger calls this characteristic of being, ‘meaningfulness’, and sees it as the primary being-character in which the world is encountered. If we look back to the reported event, that I began with, I can speculate that its dynamis is expressed in its capacity to create fear, which in turn enables it to be transcribed from a written form into a visual one.

Yet on saying this, a problem immediately shows itself. How can this transcription be successful? It appears to entail the crossing of a clear formal boundary, that is from written language to concrete entity. To answer this question I will return to The Origin of the Work of Art, and Heidegger’s analysis of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of work shoes. He finds that the painting of the shoes reveals the ‘equipmental being of the equipment’ (160). On reviewing his analysis, he reminds the reader how this conclusion was arrived at. Not by a description and explanation of a pair of shoes. Not by a report on how shoes are made. Not by observing how shoes are used. The essential being of equipment, in this case a pair of shoes, is discovered by:
‘… bringing ourselves before Van Gogh’s painting. This painting spoke. In the nearness of the work we were suddenly somewhere else than we usually tend to be’ (161).

The work of art, like the original newspaper report, has the capacity to allow us to experience change; ‘…In the nearness of the work we were suddenly somewhere else than we usually tend to be’. Yet this change is expressed, somewhat paradoxically for a painting, through speech – ‘This painting spoke …’. This bringing to presence, the artwork’s ability to make visible, to unconceal, is achieved through speaking.

Characterising the painting’s capacity to let us see, as a form of speaking seems nonsensical. This is true if we think of speech as merely a form of sound. Yet speech is not sound pure and simple. In our everyday speaking with each other, what we say has meaning, it has dynamis. Heidegger defines this meaningful speech as logos. In much of his early writings Heidegger analyses the term phenomenology by splitting it into the component parts of phenomainon and logos. Both have a connection to the visible, to seeing – the phenomainon is that which is brought to light and therefore seen, logos is ‘ostensive speech’, it allows that which is spoken about, to be seen as it is, as existing;
‘… existence is meant in every logos.’ (2005, 18)

A painting, such as Van Gogh’s, and a piece of writing, such as the newspaper story, share the same ostensive capacity. They both have the ability to show, to make visible and therefore to make present. The painting expresses this in the appearance, the eidos of the shoes, the newspaper article expresses it in the logos of the text. What is brought to presence is not a mere description – but the meaningfulness, the dynamis, of the original event.

As such the seeing that dynamis instigates can be characterized as witness. This is a seeing that demands to be grounded, whether through testimony or image, or both in the case of Goya’s etchings from the Disasters of WarI Saw It’, ‘And this too’. Similarly Van Gogh’s painting is his witness to the event of the presencing of the workshoes.

What is seeing as witness? What is presence in that what it makes visible calls us to witness? I shall approach the idea of witness through the concept of presence developed in Heidegger’s 1963 lecture Time and Being. In this talk, Heidegger calls for philosophy to join art, particularly painting, in thinking Being without beings. In Heidegger’s earlier work, as we have seen, the relationship between Being and being was central to his thinking. Yet here he wants to dispense with ontic being altogether, but still preserve Being’s double-character. He does this by replacing being with time. His immediate reason for doing this is in order to focus on Being as presence. For Heidegger ‘Being means the same as presencing’. What is given through presencing is the present; in ‘presencing, presence speaks of the present’ (1972, 2).

As soon as we hear the word present, we are struck by its tripartite meaning;
What is present, Being
The present now, time
A present, gift
Heidegger thinks of the relationship between the three; Being, time, gift, by first thinking the relationship between Being and time. He says both can be separated from the other because of what they are not. Strangely they are both not the same thing, they are not beings, that is they are not things and therefore they are not the other.
‘… Being is not a thing and therefore not temporal … Time is not a thing, thus nothing which is’ (3).

A further difference is noted in the way in which each is a determination of the other, that is, each allows the concept of the other to be enlarged. Being is not temporal ‘yet it is determined by time as presence’ (ibid). Time is not a being and yet ‘… remains constant in its passing away without being something temporal like the beings in time’ (ibid). Being and time are reciprocal determinations of the other.

Heidegger’s speaking of the differences between Being and time is speaking as diairein ‘speaking that divides’ (2009, 208). Diairesis is a determination of speaking, through it that which we speak about is shown, as this or as that. In this case as Being or as time. If diairein speaks about division, synthesis speaks about ‘… letting something be seen in its togetherness … as something’ (1962, H 33). This meaningful speaking, the logos of diaresis and of synthesis, are language’s tools of dynamis. Both have the same end, the showing of the thing as something, one does this through division, the other through togetherness.

Heidegger approaches the synthetic relationship between time and Being not by seeking to mould the two together, but by seeking to show what is at stake when the two are named (spoken) together as Being and time, or as time and Being. He asks what holds the two towards each other and in so doing brings them into being. Heidegger approaches this question by expanding the concept of each by saying they are both matters. Therefore when we ask, what is Being; what is time? We are asking of the matter of Being, and of the matter of time. Both are ‘matters’ because both conceal something within them, which leads us to ask questions of them. Yet they are not beings as such, we cannot say “Being is” or “time is”. What can be said is “there is Being” or “there is time” – in German “es gibt Sein”, “es gibt Zeit” – “It gives Being” – “It gives time”.

Being comes to presence in the logos/eidos of the ‘It gives’, as a gift, a presentation, an opening up. Time also comes to presence in this saying/appearing of giving, as an extending, from past to present, from future to present. Opening up a realm of what Heidegger calls time’s four-dimensionality, the fourth dimension, the interplay of the past, present and future, ‘playing in the very heart of time’ (15) the gift of time.

A final question that Heidegger asks about is the ‘It’ that ‘gives time’ and ‘gives Being’ as presence. The ‘It’ is the event of appropriation, ‘the gift of presence’ is the ‘property of appropriation’ (22). The appropriate shows itself in the destiny, the sending, extending of Being which is opened and preserved as presence. ‘Being is destiny’s gift of presence’ (22).

It is the event of appropriation, as a dynamic happening of Being, that calls us to give witness to what is seen. Witness is a dynamic seeing, appropriate to the temporality of Being’s givenness. In my act of transcription, from text to image, what is carried across, is not the description, but its meaningfulness as presence. The artworks are my witness to the event, calling upon those who encounter them, to witness it in turn, to enter into my dynamic re-imagining of the original event.

In order to witness the gift of the newspaper story, we must therefore listen as the murderous events, expressed in the logos of testimony and witness, spoken through the anonymous author of the newspaper report, are made visible, and by being made visible, make us, in turn, witnesses.

The title of the narrative is; Cheers as murder accused walks free. The title speaks about the end, so let us start at the end.

Following the verdict, and the cheering, the former accused, Paul Lafferty says:
“I’m obviously delighted to be free after being inside for eight months.”

Gordon McNaughton, accident and emergency consultant, says the accused was subject to:
“one of the worst and most sustained stabbing assaults I’d ever examined.”

Antoinette Folan, described as ‘the victim’s widow’ says:
“I pulled Brian’s arm and saw the knife in his hand. I pulled him out the close and he went down the steps and collapsed. I thought he was just exhausted. I looked back and saw Paul Lafferty crawling up the stairs.”

During the assault Antoinette Folan calls 999 on her mobile, in speaking she foretells the future:
“I think there’s going to be a murder here.”

She tells the court:
“I saw Brian making actions like he was stabbing Paul Lafferty.”

Innes Wiseman says:
“Next thing Paul was in the close crawling up the stairs, injured and bleeding and I laid him on a couch. He was bleeding all over. It was a night I never want to remember.”

Bryan Folan speaks, as if from the dead, through Innes Wiseman:
“Come down here, ya prick. Let’s sort this oot. I’m gonnae plug ye.”

Finally. The story is dominated by an image, a gift to us from the anonymous author. It shows Paul Lafferty giving his friend, Bryan Folan, a gift, a gift of death, as Folan, in vain, tries to give him the same.
“He inflicted the fatal wound while cowering on his knees as his friend rained knife blows down on him”.

Derrida, J. Given Time. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1994.

Heidegger, M. Being and Time. Translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962.

Heidegger, M. On Time and Being. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Heidegger, M. The Basic Problems of Phenomonology. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Heidegger, M. History of the Concept of Time. Translated by Theodore Kisiel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Heidegger, M. The Origin of the Work of Art. Translated by A. Hofstadter with minor changes by D. F. Krell. In; Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, D. F. Krell (ed.). London: Routledge, 1993.

Heidegger, M. Introduction to Phenomenological Research. Translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

Heidegger, M. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy. Translated by Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B. Tanzer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

Derek Hampson