An island of language in an ocean of traces

Just finished Gayatri Spivak’s, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Of the essays in this compilation, I found particular inspiration in “Sign and Trace,” written on the artwork of Anish Kapoor.

MY RED HOMELAND, Anish Kapoor, 2003. Wax and oil-based paint, steel arm, motor. Installation view. Accessed at http://lipmag.com/arts/exhibition-review-anish-kapoor/

MY RED HOMELAND, Anish Kapoor, 2003. Wax and oil-based paint, steel arm, motor. Installation view. Accessed at http://lipmag.com/arts/exhibition-review-anish-kapoor/

Spivak writes:

Just after I had my first walk through Kapoor’s studio, I spoke to a group in Austria: “We will have to be able to think that for each one of us and groups of us, globalization is an island of languaging in a field of traces. Just descriptively, upstream from politics, globalization is an island of languaging in a field of traces.” 492

She goes on to explain that we shouldn’t think of the global in terms of exchange that “privileges host or target, ceaselessly and indefinitely” (493). Instead, globalization means that we humans are in the peculiar position of being bounded or restricted by the nature of our national, social, racial and gendered circumstances, yet we live constantly alert to the radically different circumstances of others beyond our boundaries that we can’t quite decipher, that we don’t totally understand. Spivak repeats,

…globalization makes us live on an island of language in an ocean of traces, with uncertain shores ever on the move. This “we” extends all the way from those who can view Anish Kapoor at Guggenheims to the unending circulation of labor export from the global South. Each member or collectivity belonging to this tremendously large group understands one or a few languages and is sure that the other organizations of noises are meaning-full but not for him or her. Language and trace are here in a gender-differentiated taxonomy rather than merely opposed. 493

For those of us working in visual studies, the end of this essay is especially thought-provoking. Spivak confirms that images are “islands of meaning” in a different way than language is. Images exist in an ocean of traces, sure, but they are traces, too, and in a less definitive way than words can be. Like all of the sand suspended in each watery wave, images make us aware that the distinction between our island of sense and the global around us isn’t as drastic or clear cut as we might think.

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