art+argument concluded day one of the ‘Fiction as Method’ symposium on the 4th December 2015; Friction were our hosts at the Nordflügel, Gessnerallee. Eduardo Simantob opened a sturdy defence of the motion ‘In fiction nothing is taboo’ by stating the necessary freedom of art. “Fiction is the best realm of the imagination, the last realm of free expression. And of course the most basic concept or conception of fiction is that it has absolutely no regard for reality or no regard for truth or facts. And more than that, art in general, fiction in particular, should never be the vehicle for any other agent or agency. It’s not in the service of any other government or idea, it’s not supposed to educate, to bring awareness or whatever. Actually I would argue that fiction is there to confuse and amuse.” Fiction might be based on reality, but retains its freedom, Simantob argued. Freedom of interpretation is essential too. “Fiction assuming itself as fiction, with no regard for facts and reality, is maybe the only last refuge of a free exercise of our imagination,” he closed.
|Photo by Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters|
Daniel Blochwitz countered this, finding taboos in fiction, with a polemical examination of several images of historic events. Théodore Géricault may have recorded The Raft of the ‘Medusa’ in 1818, but similar images of happenings in the Mediterranean are horribly commonplace today; we have, apparently, learned little in the intervening centuries. “While the paintings affect us even years after the actual events—the way they stir our imagination and sense of empathy—photographs seem to have lost most of their ability to touch us. Even though we can conclude from the photographs taken that the photographer has personally witnessed the depicted event, we are unable to turn tragedy into empathy, let alone into solidarity and action. While Goya and Géricault were able to use their paintings to mobilize people, contemporary press photographs rarely are anything but an end in itself: they fill space and sell news.” Blochwitz posited that paintings stand for fiction, while photographs in this instance are reality. Yet fiction needs a connection to reality to have an impact, to maintain the belief and engagement of the reader or viewer. Photography “straddles both, fiction and non-fiction, with a simultaneous need for the suspension of belief and disbelief. In fact, one might call photography “realist fiction”. But this seesaw of fiction-non-fiction has an increasingly heavy burden of proof on the belief side, as we increasingly grow weary of the ratio of truth communicated through the images we consume. As Baudrillard writes in The Spirit of Terrorism, ‘The image consumes the event, in the sense that it absorbs it and offers it for consumption.’” Blochwitz went on to examine the photographic constructions of artists like Jeff Wall and Martha Rosler, and concluded with the point at which fiction, fact and taboo collide: “I wish we would give non-fiction photographs the same benefit of a doubt, cast aside our PoMo-cynicism, and suspend our disbelief. Because the alternative is that we will get used to the worst images of the 20th Century and suddenly our civilization, our communities will accept again what we thought to be absolute taboos. Taboos in a real world and horrors perpetrated against real human beings ...”
|Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969|
Emily Rosamond’s opening echoed some of Blochwitz’ sentiments, while claiming those arguments for the defence. She unpacked the relationship between fiction and taboo. “So what is it that fiction can do with taboo, with the repressed, with the most difficult subject matter to talk about, whether that’s personal trauma, political trauma, whether that’s the massive political violence of late capitalism.” She borrowed a quote from Slavoj Zizek’s Plague of Fantasy in which he argues that fiction is fundamentally ideological. Zizek writes that narrative emerges ‘in order to resolve some fundamental antagonism by rearranging its terms into a temporal succession’. “So if narrative is in some way a base ingredient to fiction,” said Rosamond, “if narrative is in some way always a fiction, always a way of fictioning, then for Zizek it’s fundamentally repressive as a medium, because it tries to smooth over, scrape over the basic real antagonism that we are always dealing with under the surface of our everyday experience. And yet perhaps Zizek misses the point. Because it is precisely in this kind of smoothing over that narrative can achieve, that it’s possible for fiction to invent new kinds of relation between antagonisms, to actually dredge them up to the surface and air them as something to be doctored or workshopped. And so this might be likened to the idea that fiction can actually invent a symptom.” From here Rosamond moved on to Lacan’s idea late in his career that the – truly great – artist might have the chance of transforming their subjectivity and inventing their own symptom. Artists “who could actually use narration, use narrative and use fiction in such an idiosyncratic way that it could actually speak to the real. And through that produce something of a relationship to desire that would actually be fiction’s highest calling. A way of profoundly unfixing the psycho-political status quo.” She cited artists like Vladimir Nabukov, Kathy Acker and Philip Guston as among the few who can truly create abject fictions, identifying with “the most abhorrent subject position imaginable…And why might this kind of upsetting of the psycho-social status quo work best in fiction? I would argue it’s because fiction can be a kind of abstract relation to territory. So the documentary image always makes a sacrifice of its subject, and the image of the little boy washed up on the beach is the perfect example of this, sacrifices its own subject to attain its political purpose which works through an affective politics. Fiction, on the other hand, the violence of a Kathy Acker novel, does not relate to an actual person, it doesn’t have that representative.”
Damian Christinger continued with a statement that would render his opponents’ words null and void: their arguments were arguments of the 20th century – Western, male thoughts. “What I want to argue is that in the 21st century the arguments need to be different. First of all, we finally live in a truly globalised world. Which means that the Western white male approach is not the only right one. The truly globalised world means that the First Nations of Canada, and the Tupiniquim of the Amazon, for example, have as much say in the debate we’re having as the male, white, Western group. In those other societies some taboo is at the core of their understanding of the world. I don’t believe it is our right to go there and tell them that our fiction, that our fictionalisation of the world doesn’t need to respect their taboo. Why is that so important? Because in the 21st century the problems we face are global problems, they can only be addressed together.” A degree of respect is needed, leaving a core of taboo that will not be addressed by fiction, “left alone so that every culture has its own reservoir of core taboos which holds it together and which makes it able to act together with the rest of us.”
Needless to say, Christinger’s words were challenged, and the opposition too took aim at their opponents. Nonetheless, at the close the audience judged the proposition the more skilful in this instance, even if their opinions were not necessarily shared.
Many thanks to Monica Ursina Jäger and Damian Christinger for the invitation to hold art+argument within the symposium, and to all participants, including Damian, who contributed to a highly enjoyable and rewarding debate. Please remember that the participants were playing roles they had been assigned and may not agree with the statements above!