Ronen, Ruth: "Incommensurability and Representation"


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What can one deduce from literary or visual attempts to realistically reproduce an individual inner identity, attempts that lean on a given repertoire of language or visual signals whose realism is doubtful? To answer this, one should be reminded that in order to assume a realism of any kind, both literary authors and visual artists claim to a relative high transparency of the artistic means they employ. Narrated monologue (or free indirect discourse, as it is called by other critics) is a linguistic device that can record the random flow of inner thoughts because it reproduces, by means of language, the effect of inner processes. Woolf's novel produces the effect of direct contact with real minds because we read the words of the literary text, the same as the arrested image of the portrait, as producing what are called "characters" that stand for actual human beings. That is, in order to attribute to specific representational devices the role of signalling any reality domain, one must assume that representation is transparent vis-a-vis the type of knowledge it enables. For example, by using visual perspective the artist signals to the observer that a painting should be looked at as if it was an open window. Realism requires a belief in the presence (rather than a suspension) of the represented object.
This claim to transparency, which conditions any claim to know the thing represented, in fact characterizes all artistic realisms. In other words, if one would like to distinguish the type of literary text that aims to represent something about the content of the human mind from other types of texts which have other mimetic aims or none at all, one should acknowledge that this specific mode of representation aims to signal the presence of the mimed object. Anti-realists will of course attribute this presence to a suitable and familiar convention; yet in taking that move anti-realists just give up on any differential notion applicable to modes of representation.
Although some periods in the history of art aim to represent reality as accurately and objectively as possible, studies of realism in art show that this aim can never be achieved. Perspective is not an objective representation of visual reality as clearly as free indirect discourse does not represent the way people think; both perspective and free indirect discourse are signifiers that determine an object by other means than by reproducing knowledge about it. Realist representation is caught in the dialectic between artistic aim and artistic practice. Realism is what cannot ignore the presence of the artistic signifier (or image) and the absence of the object of representation yet aims to overcome their non-identity. In representation, reality is always distorted: no image can reproduce it. Realist representation is characterized by the inevitable split it creates between the signifier (the artistic image) and the object which art aims to represent. This relation of impossible representation, is what I propose to call incommensurability.








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AS/SA Nº5, Article 3 : Page 10 / 12

© 1998, AS/SA

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1998.06.15