During the course of this year I feel that I have moved forward a great deal, this tells me that my decision to take 2009 away from formal study and work instead on my art practice in isolation was a good one. At the start of this year my theory was extremely rusty, to the extent that I was barely conversant the concepts that I had been working with during my last study in 2008. This necessitated that I re-search for this information. In my researching I found that these concepts combined with the matters that I’d been thinking about during 2009 (mainly linguistic analysis) made up a coherent system of thinking of my practice, this in turn led to my taking the time out to work out the essential why’s and wherefores of my practice as it stands to date.
What I have come to realise is that my practice is fundamentally quite simple – I have always had my mind on the question, “Where do I fit in?”, I have researched this in a number of ways over the years, over the last few years this investigation has been photographic, which I feel makes the most inherent sense of any media that I have used to date. My realisation that tied these threads together earlier this year started from the concept of the centralisation of privilege, which is a fairly complex, and yet simple concept.
I had heard, and even been using the term privilege for some time, in the sense of male/hetero/cis/white/whatever I took to mean – the privilege that society as a whole confers to those who are in a demographic that has a dominant position in the power structure of society, which is true to a degree (not universally, rather by statistical likelihood), but it is rather too easy to reduce to a binaristic structure(something which I have long disavowed in many things, preferring instead scales of latitude) . However I recently had a dawning realisation that the supposed binaristic structure is better described in terms of a three or four dimensional sphere (3 plus time = 4) where the position of privilege is centralised.
I feel that privilege works in a manner where the center is not interrogated, but rather that which deviates is, The central position essentially becomes invisible and can only be described in opposition to that which deviates, yet the converse is not true in describing the positions that deviate from center, these positions can be mapped in terms of activity, culture, role, or suchlike. This mode of centralisation and decentering is described in passing in some theories, most concisely in feminist ‘accentric’ gender theory ( Lindemann 1997?), but most of these theories seem limited in scope and scale to the authors subject at hand, and do not begin to look at societal structure, which seems odd, especially given the scope of common turns of phrase which are used to describe the phenomenon of centrism in society.
This concept that privilege is center stands up to investigation at an informal linguistic level pretty well, there is a lot of language around privilege and societal expectations that is geographic in manner. Terms such as “knowing your place”, “deviant”, or “outsider”, describing a person who is calm and in control as “centered”, or describing someone ‘put’ outside of society as “abjectified” – when I look at these terms closely it leads me to suspect that this ‘accentric’ theory of social acceptance/dismissal is something that is quite commonly instinctively taken as being true, but people very seldom talk about it in terms of it being a valid theory, As a theory it’s seemingly too obvious for people to consider deconstructing.
This concept of centrality operates not only as a passive phenomena to describe ones relation to center, but also as ‘decentering’, which is a re/positioning where those people who do not conform to social stereotypes are pushed outwards from center into more marginal positions, to privilege (as a verb – often seen in circles of social activism) is the centering of ones own experience in a manner that negates or silences those who do not share ones personal history, to a degree everyone does it, even if it is just miscommunication, but of course its effect has more power the closer the ‘speaker’ is to the ‘ideal’ central position in society.
Of course it is possible for groups who are decentralised to gather together and form a locus that centralises their own experience, thus they have a centralised identity within a marginalised community, and these locus’s (loci?) can and do move with time, hence my earlier reference to a four dimensional sphere, a persons position within this sphere of influence (nice common term, no?) can thus be centric (centered), accentric (decentered), excentric (removed from influence utterly), or even eccentrically accentric (variably accentric over time), as you can see, this is somewhat more complex than the banal description of privilege being a binaristic structure that one does or does not have. Instead I believe that privilege is in fact conferred variably to individuals according to ones relationship to the centralised position and not purely in terms of man versus woman, or suchlike, This raises an important point, which is that privilege is not automatically individually assigned to those people traditionally assumed to have privilege (though it usually is), and further, it can be taken away by dint of decentering a persons social position.
The term “sphere of influence” is axiomatically appropriate, especially in terms of excentric positions in as much as it implies that the further from center one is positioned the more faintly ones voice is heard, conversely in this structure the people who are closer to ‘center’ have the greatest speaking privileges, which has led to another realisation on my part, that is, that to have societal speaking rights is to have ‘write access’ to the social/cultural/historical archive (of post/modernist fame).
This concept of ‘write access’ to the cultural archive also reifies the marginality of decentered people in that their voices, experiences, and opinions are less common in the cultural/historical archive to a degree reflecting their marginalisation within society. If a person is close to center in society then the archive will hold their experience as being more normalised than a person whose experience is less centered, and thus, in drawing from the same archive a more centered person will see a marginalised persons position as being ‘correct’ in terms of their position and input as described by the archive. This is somewhat similar to the adage that “history belongs to the victor”, only in this case we are most all, to a greater or lesser degree, losers.
This realisation that the cultural/historical archive functions as a structure which reifies marginality in those people who’s position in society is accentric has led me to a far more fundamental realisation that what I was in fact looking for, upon realising this I had to reassess my method of operating within my own artistic practice, I found that my method of inquiry was failing to adequately allow for my own marginality in as much as I was looking (somewhat uncritically) to art theory, linguistics, and sociology as a conceptual means of discovering and defining my place in the world. These theories and structures of course being a reflection of the cultural strata which had been fed into the very archive I was drawing from, thus the archive I was perusing was essentially marginalising me even as I searched for a place within it in which my position was not marginal.
In this I realised that I needed to essentially create my own archive, and to be critically selective in my choices of what to bring into it. My ‘practice of production’ (or the geography of my practice) on the other hand is quite nicely positioned for this mode of archiving, to such a degree in fact that I’m faintly surprised I hadn’t realised these things sooner. Photography is an essentially archival medium when you get right down to it (in the sense of archive as verb rather than assumed longevity), and much of the other ‘stuff’ that I do has a strong element of collecting, replicating, and categorising.
I find myself at this point beginning to look back to post-structural theorists I have read in the past and considering their words again, only this time with a critical awareness that comes from having a position to work from, rather than being in a position of seeking a place. I still have not found a place for myself in the world, however, I have found a critical position to occupy, and thus my practice is in essence is beginning to develop strategically rather than just tactically (De Certeau 1984).
At this point some of these concepts and avenues of research have not yet been implemented due to this realisation having come quite recently, the inquiries around the concept of the archive in particular are largely unscratched, though I am aware that Forcault and Heidegger have both discussed around the topic. I have also come to a realisation that there are ways I could better present my work given the concepts I am considering, however, this is, as the title suggests a waypoint – and not a finalised presentation.
Em Davidson – 27 May 2010
(1.) Davis Kathy (ed.) (1997). Embodied Practices, Feminist perspectives on the body. – London, Sage Publications. ( pp 73-90)
(2). De Certeau, Michel (1984). The Practice of everyday life. California: University of California press.