Can we perform form differently? What is form? What is performing differently?
Encounters with others are more often than not shaped by the experience of violence, subordination, hierarchy and exploitation. What does it mean to act responsibly when encountering another with whom we have no proximity to language and culture? What does it mean to take responsibility in an encounter with another when our sense of responsibility lies in the normative framework that has constituted us? To approach these questions I want to refer to Judith Butler’s idea of responsibility; or as “the ability to respond”. She defines it as an untangled and unfolding process that is rooted in the social relations that constitute us as subjects. Butler proposes responsibility as an ethical practice grounded in the critical autonomy of the subject. The subject can act in an ethically responsible manner by critically reflecting on the established normative system in which the subject finds itself.
Following this thought, I understand that the subject has the ability to become aware of the ways in which it identifies and disidentifies itself with the normative framework. Through this awareness, the subject may undermine the system by, as Butler calls it, “performing differently“– meaning outside of its given norms – and by doing so reshaping the normative framework. To my mind, such considerations demand a radical reassessment of our understanding of notions such as freedom, consciousness and free will. It alters our understanding of human subjectivity in relation to discoveries in science and information technologies. Such knowledges update our understanding of the ways in which the flow of capital and information is influencing the formation of the subject in the socio-political condition. Furthermore, such thinking offers possibilities for moving away from binary conceptions of identity towards a more fluid understanding of identity.
Curator and art critique Amelia Jones argues that a critical discourse on identity is particularly relevant in the visual realm, specifically in visual art, where bodies, materials and forms are read as social signifiers. Therefore, the question of how we identify with visual language and how we conduct visual interpretation is crucial for our understanding of how we identify ourselves and how we see others. Meaning is inserted into forms such as words or sentences as well as bodies, materials and objects. In his paper about the conduit metaphor, linguist Michael J. Reddy analysed what words and metaphors English speakers use to describe the failure of the transmission of information through language.
With the ‘conduit metaphor’ as his terminology, he highlighted how people speak or write as if they can simply “insert” their mental contents into language as if the language itself is a container for meaning. This content is then seemingly "extracted" by the listener. Thus, communication is viewed as a linear "conduit" conveying mental content between people. For me, the conduit metaphor makes visible how meaning is created. The locus of meaning is human thought – not language, bodies or materials. As long as there are bodies and materials that function as social signifiers, we can be neither transcendent nor beyond identity. Therefore we must be attentive to the way in which we make meaning and be aware of the assumptions and beliefs about the bodies and subjects we imagine and what kind of knowledge we generate and channel.