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Research: Philosophy of language & reality – part 2

A second set of recommended philosophers and thinkers are investigated below to aid the resolution of my project outcome. As I’m close to a fairly solid final idea I’m looking to consolidate my approach and use of language and to confidently stamp my ‘authorship’ on the work. These philosophers are more contemporary than the previous set so I’m looking to them for consolidation on what I’ve learnt and hopefully not totally contradict my understanding. But this is something I’ll bear in mind during my review.

Paul-Michel Foucault

Paul-Michel Foucault, 1926-84

French philosopher Michel Foucault’s influential essay “What is an author?” argues that the author of a piece of text is not a person at all but a function or figure which emerged in connection with literature. He seems to suggest that the authority of the literary author is ripe for questioning in terms of the authority of their writing. His work is complex but once understood it makes the grounds of our established belief systems of literature shift under our feet. He turned the concept of the author inside out and understood writing to be freed from the need to express. He believed that writing was able to represent only itself as he writes,

“Writing unfolds like a game that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its limits. In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.”

So Foucault has separated the author from their body of work and shifted literature into discourse – so it has become how knowledge is constituted and is influenced by the unconscious and conscious mind and the emotional life of people who interact with it. I link this to the work of Roland Barthes and how he encourages us to ignore the intention of the artist and construct our own meaning. But Foucault takes things further into the exciting realm of how writing spontaneously creates its own spaces as reading takes place. These spaces are blank imaginary worlds created by a reader in real time.

Slavoj Žižek, 1949-

Slavoj Zizek

Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher. As with Foucault his work is complex but I watched a video of him explaining “The real” which I found relevant to my work. This was a short but perplexing insight into what is real in our world, as he explains below,

“The problem with the real is it is not as simple as it may appear. One definition of the real is ‘that which resists symbolisation’ but the problem with this is that nothing resists symbolisation.”

What Žižek implies is that if something is real it cannot have a symbolic representation, so we cannot assign another representation to it. So the next question is whether anything is real and are all our experiences of the world imagined realities? The bigger problem is where to go next. If we can’t use symbolisation as an inroad what other devices do we have? Žižek suggests that we may be stuck in a vicious circle, as he explains,

“The notion of the real is a purely non-substantial formal notion. The real is an obstacle to itself. It is not something we can touch but it is the obstacle that prevents us from touching the real.”

Now, how do I relate this to my art practice? I like the notion that I have licence to assume that nothing is real and everything is imagined by the billions of chemical pathways in our brains. Everything in the world is a symbolic representation of something else and humans create symbols and hence order to ring fence an otherwise chaotic universe. Religion does exactly that.

Judith Butler

Judith Butler, 1956-

In her influential book, Excitable Speech (1997) Judith Butler argues that linguistic meaning is fluid and provisional, not fixed and rigid. She states that the speaker cannot exercise complete control over a listener’s interpretation as the spoken words are experienced along with the occasion for speaking and listening, the words themselves and larger cultural traditions. She is building on the work of Foucault but she extends it to look at hate speech and gender issues in contemporary society.

The text itself begins with an interesting statement that “resignification” of utterances is possible as Butler explains,

“Words might, through time, become disjoined from their power to injure and be recontextualized in more affirmative modes.”

This is fascinating and relates directly to my current project. The language that was uttered to me many years ago has certainly morphed over time and has been resignified, but we’ll discuss that in the summary. Butler goes on to to say that speech is “excitable” and fluid, because its effects are often beyond the control of the speaker, shaped by fantasy, context and power structures. She also discusses the fact that speakers can never determine with certainty the audiences’ interpretation of the speaker’s utterance. This concords with what we’ve learnt from Foucault.

Another interesting observation made by Butlet is below,

Is our vulnerability to language a consequence of our being constituted within its terms?

How do we interpret this? We are formed by language and language is how our world is constructed. If we are called a beggar then we attach all the stored symbols we have to that association and it impacts us as a consequence. What I realise here is that language is everything and holds so much power. The significance of the language in my project has been greatly highlighted.


I’ve looked at these three philosphers with quite a light touch but have pulled out some very useful insights. Foucault and Butler both emphasise the fluidity of language and how its meaning and symbolic power are not predetermined. Language is simply words that are set free into a space that are then picked up and interpreted. Many imaginary lenses can get in the way of this interpretation and over time these lenses cloud over, crack or are just replaced with the latest model.

When I link this idea to Žižek and his notion that nothing is real it makes me question whether the original utterance of language is a clouded version of the original.

It’s fascinating to relate this discussion to the original set of letters I gathered many years ago. The power of the words they contained had a huge impact at the time but this has mellowed greatly. Reading them again, some I can’t understand, others still resonate but most I find quite entertaining. I think this research has guided me towards another message I’d like to portray through this work which is related to recovery. As Butler says, language usually loses its power over time and as the old adage goes “Time is a healer”. I don’t want this to be a stated message in my outcome but I’m confident that the humour will portray to the viewer that my story is an experience that has been dealt with, thanks to the benefit of time.

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