Sathyananad Mohan
  13 April – 26 May, 2012


“The wages of meaning is death.”
            Maythil Radhakrishnan,
from God's Fossil

A lot of catalogue essays these days are rather tautological; they simply describe what is readily apparent to the eye, but with all the obligatory bells and whistles, - the Cultural Studies frame, the overwrought prose style, the topicality of the works in political terms and their proportionate desirability in market terms, and so on and on. In this essay, I have not touched upon my photographs at any length, since it has been said by people wiser than myself that one should never trust what an artist has to say about his or her own work. I have rather tried to set out the questions, - aesthetic, philosophical, political, - that I have been preoccupied with over the last two or three years; they form the implicit background against which the photographs presented here were conceived, executed and presented. What relationship this has to the work, will, I hope, be evident enough from the essay. If it is not, that is also fine, since the viewer can then use his or her imagination to interpret the works as they see fit, which makes the whole painful exercise of writing this essay completely irrelevant, which is perhaps how it should be.

What is the relationship between the world, in its concrete materiality, and language, an abstraction? We grasp the world through language, - or to put it another way, it comes to us as a representation, mediated through language which, far from being a pure or neutral agent, is always already ideological. Thus experience is always partial and the entry into language, which makes us subjects of the world, necessarily comes at a price, - perhaps the reason why the French philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said that (to paraphrase) “The word is the murder of the thing”. This entry into the Symbolic order of language and subjectivity is what Lacan, extending Freud's insight, called castration. What is severed is, to put it somewhat simply, the link to the maternal

Thing1, - an irretrievable domain of plenitude and wholeness (that he called jouissance), - which however persists (or insists, as he says) in the Real. According to Lacan, the Real is “that which resists symbolization entirely”; -i.e, that which is unrepresentable.

Unlike the Western philosophical tradition in which experience is almost always mediated through language, Eastern philosophies such as Zen Buddhism entertain the possibility of returning to the Kantian thing-in-itself beyond the world of Appearances. One can find here a whole metaphysics of the dissolution of selfhood, - insofar as what we call the self is itself the assumption of a socio-linguistic mandate, - from the momentary Satori in which the screen of representation falls away for an instant permitting us a glimpse into an other order of Being, to Nirvana, which has been described as a state of total immersion, bliss or pure jouissance. In one tradition, language blocks access to the thing-in-itself, whereas in the other, it is possible to transcend the world of appearances through an arduous regime of spiritual and mental training, but where the experience itself remains unrepresentable.

Contemporary scientific discourses also often foreground the impossibility of communicating its experiences in the medium of language. This is not simply a question of the specialized expertise involved that makes communication with the wider public difficult, but of the problem of the logical bases in which language is itself grounded. At the extremes of observable phenomenon, at the opposing yet interconnected scales of the very big (the level of Cosmic events) and the very small (the level of the sub-atomic particle), it has been noticed that things move in mysterious ways, contrary to expectation, - where one finds that the Demiurge resides in the shape of a paradox, and where one discovers the aporias of infinity.

But there is another sense in which language meets its limits in everyday life itself, - in, for instance Death, or in a related vein, in a traumatic encounter that cannot be adequately integrated into the Symbolic universe, and the ensuing derangement of the psychic and linguistic life-world of the one who suffers it, resulting in madness, psychosis and even suicide. Part of the fascination that death and madness have exercised over artists and writers is surely the fact, to use a Kantian metaphor, they are Sublime, - i.e, they mark the limits of language and expressivity as such, and is the point at which representation breaks down. As Lacan says, it is the function of beauty to reveal man’s relationship to his own death2.

But language itself, to cite Heidegger, is mankind's revenge upon the intractable fact of its own mortality. Faced with the one certitude that life has to offer, Death, as well as the pure contingency of an obscure, obdurate universe, - or, in a literary register, the capriciousness of fate, - to which we are consigned while we are alive, it is language that holds out the possibility of Meaning, of making sense of that which follows no human measure or law. Thus, without language, existence itself would be, literally, unthinkable. Yet, as many philosophers have already pointed out, this is also the function and the origin of the Transcendental Signifier (God, Nation, Party, Dollars), - to erect an Entity over the abyss of non-meaning around which our aspirations can cohere.

The transcendental signifier exists at the conjunction of Language and Power, and, to take up a theme dear to post-Colonial theorists, has been shown to be instrumental in the erasure of difference, of reducing the Other to the status of a non-Subject by equating it with nature, the primitive and the animal. The relationship between language and power here is strictly dialectical; language (or a particular discursive regime) confers the mandate for the exercise of power (and along with it, violence), which in turn enables the ‘truth’ of that particular rhetorical game to be established in the first place. Language is what separates us from the animal kingdom, but it is also the source of our Hubris and the arrogance with which human beings have treated the entire planet.

This is perhaps the reason why there has been the recent turn, in philosophy, to ‘the question of the animal’; thinkers as diverse as Derrida and Deleuze have spoken of the necessity of 'becominganimal' (which also accounts for their common interest in what they call Kafka's zoopoetics). It is also what the poet and writer Maythil Radhakrishnan3 alludes to when he writes that “I survive / God and the meanings of man, for / I am the poet of dragonfly’s wings, / a crab’s shell, a snake’s moulted skin, / a spider’s web.” It is the assumption of the subject-position of that which is powerless or mute, or has been deprived of a voice, and has thus been silenced and eradicated, but which in its own selfless way sustains the very fabric of the universe. Another way to interpret the Lacanian Real would be as the (intangible) Silence without which language itself would not be possible. In Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp, - perhaps one of the greatest anti-war films ever made, - a Japanese soldier who gets separated from his platoon becomes a Buddhist monk (more through accident than by intention) after traversing the destroyed landscape in order to rejoin his company, where he experiences, after the fact, the psychic desolation that war brings about. He would like to return home with his fellow soldiers, but compelled by the twin imperatives of duty and necessity (to bury or cremate the war dead as they lie festering all over the beautiful Burmese countryside, which quickly turns into an obsession), he decides to stay on. At a fundamental semantic level, this is a clear illustration of the Lacanian deathdrive, - the compulsion, which comes from an other place, that makes us do things that have no rational significance. But the greatness of the film also lies in the way in which it sets up a relay between silence and an entire complex of other signifiers (death, patriotism, honour, duty and friendship, among others). In the film, the Real is the naked horror of the war itself, which renders the protagonist mute4 in the face of the meaningless suffering that he sees etched into the very face of the landscape. But like Antigone5, in assuming a position that is neither dictated by self-interest nor by altruism, but which still does not originate in the wounded conscience and goes as well beyond the call of the Big Other6, and which thereby radically reworks every standard of human satisfaction, - proclaiming a kind of amor-fati, if one likes, since he already belongs to the dead, - he attains freedom, in a manner of speaking.

April 2012

Sathyanand Mohan is an artist and occasional writer. He lives and works in Vadodara.


1.  The Thing, being a lost (obscure) object is both the object of language and of desire, which perpetually circles around it (as the
     Drive) without ever attaining it.

2.  For Lacan, madness, excommunication (in the sense of being made a pariah), etc, are also forms of death, - of death in the
    Symbolic order of social interaction.

3.  Maythil Radhakrishnan (b. 1944) is a Malayalam poet, writer, essayist, computer programmer and amateur ethologist. The poem
     cited above (God's Fossil) is one that I got from the internet. For this essay, I had tried (unsuccessfully) to translate some of his
     other poems into English, but this one gives as fair an idea as any other of the enduring themes of his work. It is a translation by
     the Malayalam poet K. Satchidanandan.

4.  Figured here at many levels, but particularly underlined in his inability to communicate to his friends his reason for not returning
     home, as well as in the self-abnegation implied by his monastic vows.

5.  So central to Lacan’s ethics as the embodiment of one aspect of the Real, - that of its lethal Desire (which he enjoins us to be true
     to, even if it destroys us) which is perhaps the only thing that can carry us beyond the blandishments of the Symbolic dimension.
     Antigone's purity is because of her unwavering commitment to the Desire that is 'in her more than herself'.

6.  The social desire that is expressed through the Symbolic order, -i.e., the domain of law, morality and consensus.


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