Iekariukedjutu

Esquema para una expresión comparada de los ciclos en creación individual

“We all already know who we are, […] and that we have a past, a present and a future.”

Fifty years ago a group of Basque artists wrote these words in their manifesto in order to claim their rightful place in history. Looking back, these words seem self-evident. When they were written, however, the Gaur Group did not even exist yet. It suggests that writing does not just describe history, but that it also has the power to create it. To fully understand the implications of this correlation, of this power to disrupt the status quo and realign the future, we should first consider the origin of writing itself. For this, we will turn to “The Writing Lesson”, a chapter from the memoirs of the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss.

“The Writing Lesson” is a tale of the anthropologist's experiences among the Nambikwara, an Indian tribe deep in the Amazon, that lived under what he considered “pre-historic” conditions. When he distributed pencils and papers among the members of this illiterate tribe, they did not yet know how to make use of these items. After a while though, the Nambikwara started filling page after page with wavy horizontal lines, mimicking the behaviour of the white man in their midst. Most did not pursue this activity for very long, except for the chief, a man of remarkable intelligence. He must have been the only one to understand what writing was for, and asked to keep a notebook of his own.

Lévi-Strauss did not give this much thought until an incident, some time later. The men of the tribe had escorted the anthropologist and his cargo of presents deep into the forest, to a large gathering of neighbouring tribes, to perform the ceremony of gift-exchange. When everyone was finally assembled, the chief suddenly pulled out a piece of paper covered with wavy lines. He pretended to read from it, enumerating which gifts corresponded to which receiver. The charade lasted over two hours, during which the chief had effectively taken charge of the ceremony and demonstrated his alliance with the white man, sharing in his secrets as an equal.

The episode led the anthropologist to reconsider his assumptions about the function of writing in society. In view of his own practice, he was accustomed to consider writing as a kind of artificial memory. Once a society knows how to write, it is able to accumulate knowledge beyond the limits of personal experience. This, he presumed, would lead to a deeper understanding of its origins, and help it to form a consecutive idea of what its future should be.

But the anthropologist's observations among the Nambikwara challenged the notion that writing is primarily an intellectual pursuit. For it had seemed that the chief, despite his inability to read what he had written, had intuitively grasped what is in essence the sociological function of writing. Rather than as a tool for understanding, he had used writing to enhance his prestige and authority at the expense of others.

In retrospect, Lévi-Strauss had to admit that nothing we know about the evolution of humankind actually supports the idea that writing is the motor of progress. For in the neolithic age, humanity made profound advances without any help from writing; and when it did exist, it wasn't able to save entire civilizations from stagnation and decline. The only correlation he could make between the appearance of writing and some kind of social development, was with usury and the distribution of individuals into a hierarchy of castes or classes.

Born from the keeping of accounts between borrowers and lenders, writing has thus always been at the service of power. Its use for disinterested ends such as science or the arts, suggests Lévi-Strauss, is just a secondary result of its invention, and may even be no more than a way to reinforce, justify, or dissimulate its primary function.

Re-examining the Gaur Group Manifesto from this sociological frame of reference, one cannot avoid noticing how its primary mode of expression, like the “wavy lines” of the Nambikwara chief, is centered around notions of authority and control. It is a rallying cry, mobilising all Basque artists to join a cultural front, and calling them to adhere to the “discipline of an indivisible intelligence, an indivisible will”.

The militant character of this text may have been an appropriate response to the oppressive political circumstances under which these artists had to make their mark. But it is also a faithful reproduction of a familiar rhetoric from the historical avant-gardes, which cultivates an ambivalence between the notion of an advancing frontline and a necessary break with the past. That is to say, the “spiritual renaissance” of which it speaks is expansionist as much as it is innovative, and disguises as new and original that which is essentially a dynamic of appropriation, recycling and usurpation.

The Gaur Group succeeded in writing itself into history by radically identifying with the here and the now. But their claim on the present also set a precedent for the future that is ultimately self-defeating. For the revolutionary spirit of the avant-garde can only be preserved if it is renewed, again and again, by those with a fresh, and therefore more legitimate claim on the present. As time passes, the “newness” of each successive artistic generation within this genealogy is gradually emptied of meaning and colonized by nostalgia. A condition under which the imperative to honour one's father and mother becomes indistinguishable from the imperative to kill them.

The Nambikwara chief's hold over his own people did not survive the passing of time either. His followers must have sensed how writing, on its introduction into their culture, had aligned itself with falsehood. Their response was to break away from the tribe and move deeper into the forest, away from the white man's influence, granting themselves a moment of respite before the inevitable forces of history would come and sweep their world away.

Such a regression into Rousseau's state of nature is not much of an option for us today, if we consider Derrida's claim that “Il n'y a pas de hors-texte”, there is no outside-text, in the first place. Does this mean there is also no escape from history? Are we forever trapped inside the teleological narratives we have written for ourselves?

Meaning swings like a pendulum over the oppositions that make up human thought. In his deconstruction of “The Writing Lesson”, Derrida argued that what Lévi-Strauss called enslavement can equally legitimately be called liberation. It is only when the oscillation is stopped on one signification that it freezes into a determined ideology. Writing can therefore not be reduced to its historical complicity with the authoritarian operation of power. Its purpose may just as well be the inverse: to resist the violent fixation of meaning in language.

It is only fitting, then, that we should conclude this text in the way we started it: with a quote that does not resign itself to a mere description of history. We shall take it from a story by Borges, the writer who declared that the concept of a definitive text corresponds only to religion or exhaustion. In 1939, he wrote a review of a fictional 20th-century French writer, among whose literary achievements is an attempt to rewrite the Don Quixote. Not as a mechanical transcription or a copy, but as a text in its own right, that just happens to coincide, word for word and line for line, with that of Miguel de Cervantes:

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened.

Written for the seminar Kaíros, Critical Contexts, Art and Writing, organised by Fernando Golvano in the context of the exhibition 1966 | GAUR KONSTELAZIOAK | 2016 at the San Telmo Museum in Donostia San Sebastián, where we presented a series of charcoal drawings, based on the images from the "Libro de los Plagios" (The Book of Plagiarism) by Jorge Oteiza.

Saturday, 27 August, 2016

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