The Artwork and Its Compassions
Simone A. Medina Polo
When I had an opportunity to write the first essay for this year’s run of Who Are We Now?, I was considering how my own position as an arts manager is symptomatic of a number of concrete socio-political conflicts – something to the effect that, as a trans woman of colour, I am a hot commodity these days while I am simultaneously witnessing a world losing itself to superficial, empty gestures by those in power. Similarly, in the prior essay in the series by Savanna Harvey, she deployed the concept of speech acts by philosopher J.L. Austin to discuss the notions of gestures, speech, and performative acts as they pertain to when we are contending with the empty decorum of politicians and administrators as well as the expressive mobilizations of everyone who is condemned to the apocalyptic prospects due to political inaction. The implicative nature of these sorts of positional dynamic experiences as well as the practices of emancipation to confront these issues are exactly why I am interested in psychoanalysis.
During this last October, I had the privileged opportunity to take a seminar with psychoanalyst, painter, and philosopher Bracha L. Ettinger as part of a certificate in psychoanalysis that I am currently completing at the Global Center for Advanced Studies. My acquaintance with Bracha’s work spanned the last 3 years after my lucky encounter with The Matrixial Borderspace, an essay collection outlining her crucial contributions in visual art, psychoanalysis, and philosophy under the banner of her most significant concept. One of the core discussions throughout the seminar centered around the clinical and philosophical implications of her formulation of the matrixial borderspace as it concerned topics such as compassion and love. However, to best explain Ettinger’s major concept, it would be helpful for us to understand the broader context in psychoanalysis that it responds to.
In psychoanalysis, one of its fundamental concepts is the notion of the drive (often misconstrued as merely naturalistic instinct) – in short, the drive is the embodiment where being as such is inherently split in such a way that reality experiences itself as parallaxes, as different strategies of coping with this fundamental conflictual cut in the fabric of reality which often experiences itself as “missed encounters” (Zupančič, 2017, 24; Zupančič, 2008, 6–11). Drives do not have a clear set object that they aim at to arrive at their satisfaction; instead, the very form of satisfaction of the drives is essentially substitutional – this is unlike the formulation of biological instincts which aim at a clear-cut object to fulfill its satisfaction. The drive is out of joint, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
To give an exact example, this distinction between the drive and instinct is what makes the notion of sexuality in psychoanalysis so controversial and innovative: in the biological essentialist account of sexual instinct, the integrity of sexuality rests in that it aims towards reproduction and its fulfillment; whereas the psychoanalytic notion of the sexual drive, sexuality is not defined by reproduction because the satisfaction of the drive is always already a substitutive satisfaction. There are a few implications that follow this seemingly extraordinary claim. Whereas the biological essentialist claim of sexuality instinct could pretend that there is such a thing as normal sexuality as the definition of sexuality, psychoanalytic sexuality is just as defined by transgender and homosexual experiences of sexuality as by those of heterosexual reproduction because of just how polymorphous sexuality is (and this could also include other extensions of the concept of sexuality which are not as ostensive) – frankly, this is why I am personally interested on psychoanalysis as a trans person. Counter to some of its reputation, this fundamental concept in psychoanalysis allows for some innovative thinking about drives, sexuality, and the human experience of ourselves as human.
In many respects, the reason why sexuality and the drive are so central to psychoanalysis is because of the way that we position ourselves around the missed encounter, where any prospects of original and unproblematized satisfaction become an effective issue in the clinic – in other words, psychoanalysis navigates the various idiosyncratic strategies that are deployed around this missed encountered as they come to constitute a person’s way of being as well as their insights into themselves and other in what we call the unconscious (Zupančič, 2019, 440). The point is that not only do we have meaningful and fleshed out psychological lives, but that these lives are situated around fundamental conflicts that implicate both the very way in which these lives tell a story about themselves as lives as well as those very lives themselves – we can think of my account of my position as an arts administrator as a symptom of a broader set of issues, or even Savanna Harvey’s account the empty, discrepant narratives of politicians in light of climate change at COP26, to name a few examples.
With this preamble to the underpinnings of psychoanalysis, Bracha L. Ettinger’s notion of the matrixial borderspace amounts to just this: what is experienced as a missed encounter and a constitutive impossibility for the individual psychological life can be articulated at the limits of experience and appearances as they are anchored in this personalized subjectivity. What facilitates such an encounter is the matrixial borderspace as a border to the constitution of subjective experience, namely a transsubjective and interpersonal edge of personalized experiences that allows for subtle transmissions, links, and acts of witnessing between everyone interweaved in such a place.
The artwork is one such place for Ettinger. The painter draws the viewer’s eye through visual allures and situates the spectator’s gaze as coinciding with the picture’s stain of the almost-impossible encounter with its own implicative captivation in the picture. In some instances, visual artists deploy techniques to articulate such an encounter. For instance, the technique of anamorphosis is the perceptual detour through corrective imagery and distortion where concealing and revealing act as a means of staging this encounter in the field of vision indirectly – most famously, this technique has been deployed in The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein, where the two diplomatic men stand next to various artifacts of human knowledge and arts; however, a skull can be perceived as a stain only when looking at the painting from the sides as a way of staging such an almost-impossible encounter. In the painting, it amounts to a statement to the effect of “Look at this, despite all the grandest achievements and self-composure of human culture and nature, there is still this stain of death in it.”
In a lecture on “Digital PTSD,” she highlights the ambivalent nature of the screen by elaborating on the difference between the artwork and the digital screen – while we are plagued by our own individual dramas in perpetual “doomscrolling” in social media and the internet, the artwork allows for matrixial transgressions of individualized subjectivity to allow for intersubjective encounters which the self-composed gaze of digital screens resist such an encounter in order to maintain their self-composure. What characterizes the difference between the artwork and the digital screen is the way in which experience and its borders are flattened in the digital screen, where time and space as the coordinates that orient our psychic lives are stake, as Ettinger notes in the lecture. It is not surprising that during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a sense of time and space collapsing, and the digital virtuality compensating for it. The stupor of digitality is flattening psychic life to immediate enjoyment without the mediations and reflections of desire – in other words, desire takes time and space to cultivate; and without no timespace for desire to take form, we find a significant collapse of the dimensions of the human experience where it gives way to mere reaction and positive-feedback. As Ettinger states:
The subject repeatedly and endlessly looks for the enjoyment achieved by immediate satisfaction of needs in terms of phantasmatic symbiotic fusion, leaving no timespace for desire to appear; no timespace for wandering douleur and lamenting witnessing for carrying the other / for caring for the other; no time to develop love, care, and effective responsibility; and no possible passage from elementary empathy to ethical compassion; no possibility for imagination. Subjective time — that negotiates past and future in the present, and gives depth to psychic time — collapses, engulfed by inundation and reactivity. The human subject becomes the object of the screen gaze — a fused screen gaze in symbiosis with the psychic eye and voids empty’s desire. The screen fused with the gaze becomes thus a subjectivizing agency against a screen that controls the subject who becomes its object (Ettinger, 2020, 12:20–14:36).
To address the titular question of the series: Who Are We Now? As philosopher Alenka Zupančič notes in her interview “Philosophy or Psychoanalysis? Yes, please:” “No, my point is that philosophy can assimilate psychoanalysis, and if doesn’t, this constitutes a genuine philosophical, conceptual decision and necessitates a philosophical invention; the distance/gap is produced in this case from within philosophy itself… to think differently in philosophy” (Zupančič, 2019, 438). Our very capacity to witness our own humanity and the humanity of others is what is at stake. The point is that when we take the considerations of psychoanalysis into the philosophical questions of what we are to ourselves, we are dealing with a confrontation with the very concept of what we are. In a sense, this is the very encounter that is missing, as is noted in psychoanalysis, as we fail to witness our very humanity and that of others for the sake of some sanitized version of humanity that patches over just how fundamentally internally split we are – it is not that we are trying to witness an innocent and pure humanity, but that in trying to uphold the pretext of the innocent and the pure, we fail to witness how deeply implicated humanity is in its own impurity. It is not to excuse this predicament through gestures of disavowal, but to embrace it as the very condition of human existence as simultaneously humbling and humiliating as this can be (something which comedy and tragedy eloquently accentuate). The digital screen has intensified the isolated experience of self-composure as something that merely preserves itself as if it were living dead and as if others were just the same; whereas the artwork shakes us up into catching ourselves with others in the very trouble of being alive.
When we are concerned with the fleshed-out notions of compassion and love implicit in the notion of the matrixial borderspace and the artwork, we realize that the missed encounter of our originary experience is not as easy to retrieve as getting over our repression of it and making do with mere substitutes. In fact, it certainly takes an element of considering such an originary experience as not integrally our own – in short, that compassion and love can only be done as an interweaving and not a singular strand of a person. Or even more bluntly, we are not main characters, nor is there such a thing as we are out of joint in oneself and with each other. The original experience of the missed encounter is not integrally our own insofar as it is the experience of transssubjective transmissions such as relations-without-relating, jointness-in-differentiating, distances-in-proximity, and differentiation-in-co-emergence, which Ettinger eloquently describes through the analogy of birthing where a mother is in close intimacy to the perfect strangeness of her own child as a non-I (Ettinger, 2007, 105). When witnessing this trouble of being alive and the ways in which we try to make excuses for it, it makes sense to me that Savanna’s essay was concerned with empty gestures of politicians as covering over the trouble of being alive as thematized through an impending apocalypse and that my first essay was focused on the band-aid solutions that seek to look over just how fundamental our troubles are. Love and compassion are not simple and easy positive solutions, but rather they are a complex invitation into the infinite abyss in ourselves and others as a shared void – love is what makes up for the missed encounter and what finds something fundamentally real in that abyss; compassion is what attests that, as much as we witness this utterly humbling and humiliating predicament in ourselves, we are witnessing this in others and with others.
References and Citations
Ettinger, Bracha L.: “Digital PTSD. The Practice of Art and Its Impact on Digital Trauma.” YouTube, 18 December 2020.
— — — “The Matrixial Gaze” in The Matrixial Borderspace, Ed. Brian Massumi. U.S.A: The University of Minnesota Press, 2006, Print.
— — — “From Proto-Ethical Compassion to Responsibility: Besidesness and The Three Primal Mother-Phantasies of Not-Enoughness, Devouring and Abandoment” in Athena: Philosophical Studies (“Athena: filosofijos studijos”) issue: 3/2007, pages 100-145.
Harvey, Savanna. “WHAT ROLE DOES PERFORMANCE HAVE TO PLAY IN CLIMATE ACTION: GESTURE AND SPEECH AT COP26” in Who Are We Now? Essays from a New World. Theatre Alberta, December 7 2021.
Medina Polo, Simone A. “IT IS NOT JUST TO HAVE A MESTIZO TRANS WOMAN IN POWER” in Who Are We Now? Essays from a New World. Theatre Alberta, January 22 2021.
— — — “Matrixial Compassions: Screen and Artwork in Transsubjective Ethical Dynamics.” Medium, November 30 2021.
Zupančič, Alenka. What Is Sex? Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2017. Print.
— — — Why Psychoanalysis? Three Interventions. Uppsala: NSU Press, 2008. Print.
Zupančič, Alenka, Agon Hamza and Frank Ruda. “Interview with Alenka Zupančič: Philosophy or Psychoanalysis? Yes, please!” in Crisis & Critique, Volume 6, Issue 1. April 2019.
Simone A. Medina Polo holds a B.A. in Philosophy and English from Concordia University of Edmonton as well as a diploma in Arts and Cultural Management from MacEwan University – currently she is completing a certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Global Center for Advanced Studies. Simone is known in the arts world as the festival producer for the Nextfest Arts Company, her output as a psychoanalytic philosopher, as well as for her music production under the moniker pseudo-antigone.