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I spent a very enjoyable evening yesterday at the ICA, discussing the relative merits of Goldin+Senneby’s Headless and Bernadette Corporation‘s Reena Spaulings.  This was in the context of the ICA’s retrospective of Bernadette Corporation, ‘2000 Wasted Years’.  Although centered on the multi-authored artists novels the artists have produced, my particular interest concerned the theme of the fragmented self that runs through both and, indeed, through the groups’ other work too. My title, ‘In Pieces’ (Prezi for the event available here) was borrowed from this passage in Reena Spaulings (p.42):

Afterwards John thanked Reena for having integrity, and said he hoped she would be able to continue with it, but Reena said it wasn’t integrity because she wasn’t whole, she was in pieces.  And John said well perhaps you’ll be able to remain in pieces and not become whole.  Reena said if I cared about it, I would be whole and not in pieces.

The talk compared the ways in which the two novels deal with common, Bataille-inspired themes of beheading, (in)corporation and disembodiment, before broadening out to consider the fragmented self more generally.  Quite apart from its importance as a theme in the novels, the fragmentation and/or proliferation of the self has become a deeply personal issue over the five years of my engagement with Goldin+Senneby.  My role as ‘spokesperson/emissary’ for the project Headless, has involved my replication and reproduction in multiple different forms both real and fictional.  Because of the ways I have become embroiled in the project I am present as, variously: academic expert, public speaker, performer, proxy, agent and several different fictional characters – all bearing my name.  This is not nearly as unsettling as it might seem to be (though can be odd when the different manifestations collide) because, as I have been impressing on Headless’ audiences for years, we all do this all the time.  We all parse our ‘selves’ in some way or another between public and private personalities as parents, teachers, friends, lovers, enemies, workers, players, and so on.  Its still us, of course, but we all assume an array of masks to suit circumstances – sometimes knowingly and willingly, sometimes because we simply have to.  None of this is remotely new, of course, having been the stock of psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature and much more for centuries.  Which makes it all the more interesting that this should still seem to be a hot topic both for performance artists looking to resist commodification and many academics of all stripes trying to explain the nature of the self in a socially fluid, mediatized world.

Of particular interest to me is the strange spatiality of the ‘distributed human being’ (Rotman, 2008).  Whilst we remain grounded by our physicality and the material needs that creates, we also, to widely different degrees, are able to transpose bits of our selves into different time and places.  Although it is tempting to suggest that this is a function of new technologies such as the Internet (and clearly such phenomena have increased our options for proliferation), these are issues that have been addressed for a long time.  This is why I was keen to combine both recent contributions to the theory of the self (Ricoeur and Rotman) with much older voices (Donne and Shakespeare).  The final word, however, went to Freudian analysand, analyst and translator, Joan Riviere, with the following thought:

There is no such thing as a single human being, pure and simple, unmixed with other human beings. Each personality is a world in himself, a company of many.…These other persons are in fact therefore parts of ourselves.  And we ourselves similarly have and have had effects and influences, intended or not, on all others who have an emotional relation to us, have loved or hated us.  We are members of one another.

Joan Riviere, 1952, ‘The Unconscious Phantasy of an Inner World’