Eyes that watched eyes that watched eyes: Curing identitarianism with estrangement and the trace

The French Sinologist François Jullien is shrewd in discerning a key difference between the Western and Chinese methods of reasoning.[1] Broadly speaking, the former logic is panoramic, adopting a commanding position that provides theoretical perspective on all material. In contrast, the Chinese field of thought is not defined and contained a priori, it unfolds progressively. “[Chinese thought] seems to weave along horizontally, from one case to the next, via bridges and bifurcations, each case eventually leading to the next and merging into it.”[2] I intend to reason like the Chinese within this essay, with a logic like that of a possible journey whereby not everything may be visible or unequivocal at various stages, but “by the end of the journey, an experience has been lived through, a landscape has been sketched in.”[3] It also seems necessary to embody the same logic to which one speaks to. In other words, in order to handle Asiatic material sensitively, it would only be appropriate to do so on its own terms. So let us begin at the very beginning, with Prajāpati, the Progenitor.

The Italian writer Roberto Calasso introduces a curious god named Prajāpati in the second chapter of his book Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India. I am baffled by Prajāpati, and it seems to me that in Calasso’s lyrical discussion, Prajāpati is so much more than what a Wikipedia definition offers; “Lord of Creatures.”[4] In an attempt to find some further clarity, I had sent my mother a text, “what is Prajāpati?” She replied in these three succinct installments:

“King of humans”
“Created by Brahma to continue human race and rule them”
“Then he created nine rishis frm his body parts n got them married 2 prajapatis 9 daughters and they are our ancestors”

A definition that leaves me as confounded as ever. I suppose I should qualify this by saying my mother was raised a caste Hindu Brahmin. However, what she offers, and Wikipedia too, is a flattened Prajāpati. It would be better to approach this god as an allegorical stand-in term of sorts, and one with a convoluted narrative. What Jullien has to say about the term shi in Chinese thought, applies to Prajāpati, in as much as it is a term “glossed almost exclusively by a handful of recurring images: nothing bestows on it [shi, or in our case Prajāpati] the consistency of a proper concept … that can be used for a neutral, descriptive purpose.”[5] Although it is not possible to turn Prajāpati into a concept, “of the kind that Greek philosophy has taught us to insist on”[6], the approach must be similar. Prajāpati’s life story is eccentric in itself, but I envisage Calasso’s depiction to be insightful and deeply effective. He draws a striking parallel between Prajāpati and the human mind: “Prajāpati was alone. He didn’t even know whether he existed or not … There was only the mind, manas. And what is peculiar about the mind is that it doesn’t know whether it exists or not. But it comes before everything else.”[7] This sentiment would resonate well with those, who are forever skeptical of absolute truths. They would say that reality is not mirrored in human understanding, but rather is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own personal reality. In essence, mind and the god Prajāpati are both progenitors; one of reality and the other of creatures. But can the mind become an object of inquiry unto itself? Like the impossibility of eyes watching themselves? This seems the endeavor of almost all Asiatic spiritual practices: an estrangement of oneself to oneself. Like the bronze Buddha watching himself in Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha. The Buddhists would claim this as an act which is not only possible, but prudent. They would speak of it in terms of attachment, or lack thereof, with an illusory sense of self. The god Prajāpati seems to have achieved this in his thousand-year-long life time: “there was consciousness and there was an eye watching consciousness.”[8] If the mind is like Prajāpati, then every human interaction is an experience of the mind coming into contact with itself as it constructs reality. Reality is thus similarly dependent on the human mind. Imagining the mind not existing means imagining all existence nonexistent. We can only then strive to fathom how many constructions of reality are manifested in any encounter with another being. Much like Prajāpati’s “eyes that watched eyes that watched eyes”[9], here we stand as ourselves in an internal dialogue with our minds, and there stands the other in a similar dialogue of their own: self that watched the mind that watched the self. There we stand, twice removed from everything, four-times removed from everyone, thirty-six times removed from the mountain.[10]

The entirety can never be known, so an understanding of the other is never reached. This is precisely why the space in between is crucial, because it is in this gap that we seem to interact. If like Prajāpati we can come to see ourselves, “so to speak, iva,”[11] perhaps we can develop a more mindful relationship with this impossibility, and in turn a more mindful relationship with the other. Hence, introspection or hyper-reflexivity becomes necessary in becoming mindful of one’s own self first, and this, even if there are so many selves, at least according to Indian thought. Even if the self is not-self, anatta; a supreme-self, brahman; an atomic-self, ātman; the little-self, jīva; and so on and so forth.[12] So the solution seems to be in this estrangement; a practice of othering one’s own self in order to understand one’s own self. But in respect to which problem?

“Identitarianism scares me … Identitarianism is a denial of the imagination. The imagination is our inbuilt instrument of othering, of thinking things that are not in the here and now, of wanting to become others.”[13]

Identitarianism scares me too. It is not unlike the Buddhist notion of an attachment with the other; be it a person, thing, concept, whatever. But there is a stubbornness to identitarianism. A clinging to the point where it seems as though the other is a part of one’s self, like a muscle, a limb, or an organ. Identitarianism is naive to the gaps, and claims the impossibility of reaching the other as an already assumed and achieved premise. Imaginative flexibility is denied, and the practice of othering one’s own self seems unnecessary. However, the solution in estrangement turns identitarianism into an absurdity. When one’s mind is estranged from one’s self, then what the mind identifies with seems inconsequential.

Identifying with anything leads to an eventual birthing of conflict, because permanence is not achieved by holding onto what one identifies with. Constancy is only a deception. Austrian-born British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein also points to this identitarianism, describing a grabbing that begins at infancy; the turmoil when denied the mother’s breasts the first time. And what happened to that first love in our adolescence? An identitarianism so strong s/he seems a part of oneself, only to be forgotten for another, but never without conflict. Further turmoil. The breast is denied, the lover is forgotten, the homeland is imagined.

Homeland is a dangerous idea. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes, “being cut off from a homeland allows a ‘homeland’ ”[14] and this is especially true in my case, if as a migrant I believe India to be my home. However, the land of birth – janma bhūmi, is no longer the same as the land of activity – karma bhūmi. I recall in the Hindu epic Mahābhārata, the five Pandava siblings roaming the Indian forests in a twelve year exile from their birth-land Hastinapur, discerning, and conceptualising their estrangement. The sadness is in the identitarianism with the birth-land, which is thought of as the homeland that they cannot access. To borrow Spivak’s phraseology, “it is a double bind – it enables even as it disables, medicine as well as poison.”[15] When dislocated from the physical reality of the birth-land, it then exists only as a trace in our minds. It is too easy for me to imagine the birth-land as I had left it in my childhood, forgetting that it is also shifting, and that the imagined homeland is now exactly that – imagined. Identitarianism here seems only to foster anxiety for an artist in dialogue with an elsewhere-nowhere home. But perhaps there can be a second cure to identitarianism in traces. Just as Jacques Derrida was unusual as a philosopher in claiming the trace as a solution that can curb the universalizing arrogance of language[16], I would similarly like to study traces as a second possible cure to identitarianism. But first, an elaborated translation of the two Sanskrit terms may be valuable.

Janma can quite simply be translated as ‘birth’. And bhūmi translated as ‘land’ is near enough but let us imbue the weight of a few other variations into this word: Earth, ground, base, and foundation. A Hindu might add that Bhūmi-Devi is the divine consort of Varaha, the mace wielding boar avatar of Vishnu. Earth becomes personified as a fearless goddess but for now, bhūmi as ‘land’ will do. Translating karma on the other hand has always proved to be an elusive enterprise. Perhaps if Mieke Bal was writing Travelling Concepts in the Humanities in Hindi for a specifically Indian audience, she may well have used karma as the perfect example to illustrate the multiples of nuanced meanings generated when a concept travels across disciplines. I’ve come into contact with this word in almost all Asiatic religions, but for an essential translation I would like to turn to Thomas McEvilley who speaks of it in terms of activity.[17] It follows then, that karma bhūmi be translated as the land in which activity happens. The land in which actions are grounded, where the repercussions are actualized. Physicists tell us that to every action there is always opposed an equal reaction. But, to every action there is also always the trace.

A trace is a signifier of a thing that had once been, like the echo of a sound. “It’s like elephant shit on the forest floor. It can be either, that there were elephants here. Or it could be, that you are hallucinating. Or yet it could be, that someone put it there in order to be a decoy for you. Or it could be that you are mistaken, elephant shit does not look like that at all, or-… indefinite ‘inventory without traces.’”[18] The birth-land exists as a trace in a migrant, in remembrance with no immediate material existence. Whereas elephant shit is a physical trace, janma bhūmi is an imagined one. Yet it still exists. A thing still sits on the forest floor just as a residue of the birth-land still resides in one’s self. There is potential in the singularity of that trace, pointing to numerous uncertain and indefinite meanings. The trace reminds us, points us back to, and allows us to return to the isness of this moment. “In order to access the present moment as such [karma bhūmi] there must be an experience of the trace [janma bhūmi].”[19] But it is only a trace, and it cannot promise anything. An identitarianism with a trace, with the birth-land, is an identitarianism with uncertainty.

An active relationship with the karma bhūmi must be enabled. I recall the New Zealand born writer Tze Ming Mok provoking something to a similar effect in her 2005 article, Race You There:

“People of South, East and Central Asia, of the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East: we have to take on the reality of our legal (if not ethnic) role as ‘Pākehā’ and reject the long-standing fallacy that the Treaty is ‘not our business’. The principles of the Treaty give us rules of engagement; if we accede to them, we will access our right to be different. Just imagine – you could assert your right to belong here based not on the length of time you’ve lived here, or the proximity of your homeland to New Zealand, or the turns of your accent, or the amount of money you’ve paid to the government, or the colour of your skin, but on your commitment to the place’s founding principles. I know it sounds crazy, but it just might work.”[20]

Mok points to the manifest lack of interest among some Asian communities with respect to the karma bhūmi. My father’s 6 pm ritual comes to mind, of watching the news never on any of the local channels, but on NDTV, the news for Indian audiences in India, available here on a special satellite network. Yet in Mok’s provocation is a subtle variation of an identitarianism vis-à-vis the state, rather than geography. That is, an identitarianism with the karma bhūmi, which could prove equally dangerous. The cure to a stubborn identitarianism with either of two, janma bhūmi or karma bhūmi, must be in estrangement, in feeling not quite at home. I recall Edward Said famously quoting Hugo of St. Victor: “The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.”[21] If it is possible for our minds to become an object of inquiry to our own selves, then so too can every land become foreign. Recognising the janma bhūmi as only a trace, is consequently the denial of an identitarianism with this that land is elsewhere, and also, an active relationship with the karma bhūmi must then be enabled, but without identitarianism.

Spivak writes on Anish Kapoor’s artistic practice using the sign-trace dialectic in the twenty-fourth chapter of her most recent book, however I wonder about the personal-biographical traces in the artist, in Anish Kapoor. That is, the traces that ground the self-design of the artist, to borrow Boris Groys’ terminology.[22] This is only speculation, but I wonder if the traces of India in Kapoor’s practice are ‘designed’? I have noticed from experience that there is always a curious disposition to somehow wrangle a reading of ‘India’ into an artwork when the artist is Indian, and I believe Anish Kapoor to be the archetypical example of an artist who identifies this curious disposition, and confuses it. The story runs as follows, as retold by Lynn Cooke:

“In 1979 Kapoor, a young, half-Indian artist who was trained as a sculptor in London, made his first visit in seven years to his homeland, where he underwent a kind of epiphany. Believing that his lack of identity stemmed from alienation from his native roots, and, overwhelmed by his experiences of shrines and religious art and architecture which he visited as if for the first time, Kapoor returned to England determined to make sculpture that realised these revelatory experiences. This radically new work directly reflected, it was argued, those aspects of Indian culture that had most moved him … Such factoids inevitably contain a degree of truth; and half-truths are notoriously resilient. This visit did mark Kapoor’s rediscovery of his native culture, and it has, since, become a source of spiritual nourishment for him. Yet the trip failed to make the same impact on him as a sculptor: it neither occasioned an artistic rebirth, nor did it create a tabula rasa, effacing or divesting him of his previous practice and ideas. At most, it proved a catalyst, not a hiatus … And in a wider sense, even his attitude to materials remained unaltered: his preference for humble, easily manipulated materials and for uncomplicated manner of working, a rudimentary almost makeshift method of assembling elements together, was not challenged. Whilst particular aspects of Indian culture have, with time, been absorbed into his iconography, and reinforce certain traits in his sensibility, to date this impact has fluctuated in intensity; and it has always been embraced if not subsumed into the matrix of his previous concerns.”[23]

Cooke argues that Kapoor’s visit to India should not provide exclusive nor even the principal terms on which the art should be apprehended. I would agree with this if we weren’t thinking of traces. The visit becomes an unmistakable trace in the artists’ self-design. Spivak has the following to say regarding comparative literature, but it can be just as applicable in our artist-artwork discussion: “By looking at the singularity of language happening on the page, we do not ignore the story line. Language cannot happen without content. It is just that focusing on the singularity of the language allows us to notice that the literariness of literature makes the language itself part of the content.”[24] By looking at the singularity of the artist, we do not ignore the artwork. That is to say, by deliberating on Kapoor’s biography we are not ignoring or discounting the artwork, but we realise that the literariness of the artist makes the artist part of the art. Simply put, art cannot happen without the artist. Although the sculptures stand severed from the artist in the white-cube or the wide-world, in reality Kapoor’s mind is one important catalyst for the material manifestation of the work. And we learn from Prajāpati that the mind understands itself only when it is in relation with something else. For Kapoor, as for myself, that something else may be India. An unmistakable trace of the janma bhūmi in our self-design.

I have noticed a few artists whose personal narratives and biographies feed back into their artistic production, but whether it is an obligation to self-design or not, we can only speculate. As Martin Creed puts it, perhaps it’s one way of “dealing with yourself and trying to cope with what comes out of you … living and working, I don’t think you can separate the two.”[25] Allan Kaprow would agree. It can’t be helped that an artist bleeds into the artwork, leaving traces of her/himself in all that s/he makes. It can’t be helped that the artist is hyper-reflexive in thinking about the self. And when the artist, like Prajāpati, is aware of the traces of one’s own self in the work, the work adopts a peculiar sensibility of the biographical-personal. Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, Marina Abramović and Ulay’s The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk, Campbell Patterson’s Lifting my Mother for as Long as I can, and so on and so forth.

I began thinking about this when Luke Willis-Thompson asked me to gallery-mind his show earlier this year. It was called inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam. “Thompson’s new exhibition at Hopkinson Cundy comprises one major work; a house in the Auckland suburb of Epsom. The gallery at 1 Cross St will remain empty for the duration of the exhibition. A taxi will wait in the loading dock to drive the viewer to the Epsom property and back to the gallery.”[26] We sense the artist’s personal- biographical narrative walking onto the Epsom property. The house was once his childhood home, and is still littered with the traces of a younger presence: family photographs and an overgrown playground in the backyard. Later the same year, I visited Thompson’s Untitled as part of the Auckland Art Gallery’s Made Active Performances curated by Natasha Conland. The viewers were invited on another taxi drive, this time from Auckland Art Gallery to a panel beaters fifteen minutes away. The site was once a funeral parlour, and only three years ago Thompson saw his father’s body lying there in a casket. We now see a video projection inside the panel beaters spray booth and Thompson is the naive adolescent on screen with blood shot teary eyes and a shaking body, but he seems to be clowning. He pinches his father’s nose, and plays with his clothes. Thompson’s artworks obviously riff off his own personal-biographical, but it would be crude to say that it is his obligation to self-design, and that he is somehow using the death of his father as material for his artwork. This undermines his sincerity, though I can only suppose he is sincere. Again I recall Martin Creed, “living and working is a matter of trying to feel better”[27] and I believe Thompson’s work speaks to the same sensibility. A coming to terms with the self and all that the self is painfully identified with. In this way, we can come to the artwork via the singular study an artist, so to speak, iva. The artist is always implied in the artwork, just as the performer cannot be separated from the performance in live music. The self of an artist is just as important a contribution to the discipline, and the artwork made can be thought of as an active tracing. The artwork is the isness of the artist’s trace, providing us with an uncertain and indefinite inventory of meaning.

There are biographical traces in English literature too, bleeding from writer into writing. I noticed this especially in The Namesake, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. “When Jhumpa Lahiri, the daughter of immigrants from India by way of England, began kindergarten in Kingston, Rhode Island, her parents told her teacher that her first name [Jhumpa] was merely a pet-name.”[28] In Bengali culture, ‘pet-names’ are for family and close friends, only to be used in private moments. Although I’m not Bengali, I also have a pet-name that has stuck to this day, Chintu. A pet-name is paired with a ‘good-name’ and Lahiri has two: Nilanjan Sudeshna. A name for the private, and a formal identification for the public realm, for the passport, the birth certificate “… and that’s how her parents expected her to be known in school. But the teacher, as Lahiri’s parents later told her, wasn’t much for formality. She said something like ‘that’s kind of a long name’ and decided it was easier to pronounce ‘Jhumpa.’”[29] Lahiri adopts this scene in her novel thirty years later. A boy with the good- name Nikhil, and the pet-name Gogol, which comes from the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. A trace of Jhumpa in Gogol, and vice versa.

There is a subtle sense of a tracing that creates a feedback loop between the English language and Indian culture. Lahiri writes in English, but “the language of [her] heart, the language [she] was raised and loved with”[30] was, and still is Bengali. She even coos to Octavio, her Indian- Guatemalan-American child in Bengali. Again, Lahiri writes in English but with an ambivalent relationship to the language, to say the least. I suspect Arundhati Roy, R.K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and even Spivak would share a vaguely similar sentiment. Any language is born of a particular disposition; historical, geographical, social, cultural, philosophical, and so on. Writing in English is to assume this peculiar disposition, and an engagement with any adopted language is sure to feed-back its own peculiarities into the birth-culture, the Indian culture in this case. This is the tracing that creates a language-culture feedback loop. The relationship these writers assume with English is not dissimilar to the Pandava’s relationship with karma bhūmi. They were not born into this language, just as the Pandava’s were not born onto karma bhūmi. Yet the Pandava siblings sincerely suffuse with the land without identitarianism, and I suspect this to be similar for the above writers; a profound engagement with the adopted English language, without identitarianism. English is our shared karma bhūmi, the ground of our activity and the place of actualising our thoughts.

Identitarianism is disabling, like a sort of lifelong pregnancy without birthing. Perhaps there can be a cure to this in estrangement and the trace. If we follow Prajāpati’s lead, we can estimate that an understanding of the ‘other’ is an impossibility, especially without a hyper-reflexive understanding of our-selves first. When we don’t hold our-selves too tightly, so to speak, iva, the ability to imagine ourselves and our dispositions as substitutable with an-other is a possibility, and should be a necessity. A hyper-reflexive awareness of our-selves allows a recognition of the traces that ground our self-design, and the recognition that the self ceases to be when there isn’t the other in relation with it. However, while there is a need to understand one’s self, there is also the impossibility of completely grasping our-selves. It would be like an attempt to fix and hold something inherently transient. This is not possible. But understanding  is not the same as grasping. Without identitarianism,  it seems there’s “nothing to be done”[31] but breathlessly watch our mind perform a tracing of a self, transient and estranged.

[1] ‘Western’, in the symbolic sense. ‘Chinese’, in the broadest sense.
[2] Jullien, François. The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China, trans. Janet Lloyd. New York: Zone Books, 1999. p. 124.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Wikipedia. Prajapati. Webpage: Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, accessed 12 September 2012.
[5] Jullien, François. op. cit., p. 12
[6] Ibid.
[7] Calasso, Roberto. Ka: Stories of the Minds and Gods of India, trans. Tim Parks. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1998. p. 21
[8] Ibid., p. 22
[9] Ibid.
[10] In reference to my own work this year, Thirty-six Views of Mount Taranaki.
[11] “As soon as one touches on something crucial, it’s as well to qualify what one has said with the particle iva, which doesn’t tie us down.” Calasso, Roberto. op. cit.
[12] McEvilley, Thomas. The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth Press, 2002.
[13] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012. pp. 405 – 406.
[14] Ibid., p. 489.
[15] Ibid., p. 487.
[16] Spivak remembering Derrida: “I have attempted to indicate a way out of the closure of this framework via the ‘trace,’ which is no more an effect than it has cause, but which in and of itself, without extra-textual gloss [hors texte], is not sufficient to operate the necessary transgression.” Ibid., p. 494.
[17] McEvilley, Thomas. op. cit., p. 178.
[18] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. op. cit., p. 492.
[19] An interview with Jacques Derrida on Youtube, accessed 22 September 2012.
[20] Mok, Tze Ming. “Race You There.” Landfall 208. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2005. Emphasis added.
[21] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. op. cit., p. 285.
[22] Groys, Boris. “Obligation to Self-Design.” e-flux journal #0, 11/2008, accessed 25 September 2012.
[23] Cooke, Lynn. “Mnemic Migrations.” Anish Kapoor. Katalog nr. 510. Oslo: Kunstnernes Hus, 1986. pp. 5-7. Emphasis added.
[24] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. op. cit., p. 354.
[25] Institute of Contemporary Arts. “Martin Creed in conversation with Tim Marlow” Martin Creed: Works. London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2010, accessed 25 September 2012.
[26] Hopkinson Cundy’s press release for Luke Willis-Thompson’s inthiswholeonthisislandwhereiam, 2012, accessed 14 October 2012.
[27] Institute of Contemporary Arts. op. cit.
[28] Minzesheimer, Bob. “For Pulitzer winner Lahiri, a novel approach.” USA Today, 19 August 2003, accessed 25 September 2012.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot, ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers,  1987.


Eyes that watched eyes that watched eyes: Curing identitarianism with estrangement and the trace. An essay submitted for the degree of Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, 2012. Image: Nam June Paik, TV Buddha, 1974. Courtesy of John Kannenberg.

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