I read Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide by Mieke Bal, and it kind of blew my mind. So I did a little book review presentation to my PhD student forum a few months ago and thought I’d include a version of it here. This will probably end up being a fairly long post, but I’ve never written a book review before (well that is not true, I wrote one as part of a competition at 15 and it was published in a national newspaper) so I thought this might be a good platform to try my hand at it.
This review is going to be structured in four parts; first I will go over general comments about tone and the way the book is written, then I’ll cover structure, then content and then I’ll say why it’s useful to my research – and why I think it would be useful to most interdisciplinary researchers in the humanities.
The first thing that struck me about Travelling Concepts is the tone of voice used by Mieke Bal throughout. It is extremely knowledgeable but not pretentious, and in parts irreverent but with a solid foundation. The whole is written in the style of a travel rough guide and Bal keeps the conversation flowing by referring back to this analogy. The conversation travels through concepts and through disciplines taking in examples of cultural artefacts, mainly fine art based but some from other areas, and presents concepts as a methodological principle for cultural analysis. She also draws largely on her lecturing experience in terms of defining the need for interdisciplinary discourse as well as proposing a whole page in defence of lecturing as a relational activity.
The book is incredibly quotable. The first notable quote is on page 14 and really embeds a lot of the discussions around practice-based research that you often have as first year PhD students within art and design.
Only practice can pronounce on theoretical validity, yet without theoretical validity no practice can be evaluated.
Followed by a quote on page 39 which not only defines the use of the term interdisciplinarity in the book itself but justifies the need for interdisciplinary work and reinforces the concept of travelling that Bal uses to frame the book’s tone all in one paragraph.
To call it ‘transdisciplinarity’ would be to presuppose its immutable rigidity, a travelling without changing; to call it ‘multidisciplinarity’ would be to subject the fields of the two disciplines to a common analytic tool. Neither option is viable. Instead, a negotiation, a transformation, a reassessment is needed at each stage.
And then there are irreverent pronunciations on revered works which really embody what I always thought about certain theoretical positions but never had the knowledge or courage to really formulate it this way. An example on 47 while talking about Proust she states
[...] while talking about visual art in annoyingly elitist and non-visual terms.
And while talking about the interpretations of the knee in Caravaggio’s Narcissus (p 263) she states.
I am interested neither in affirming nor denying the possibility that the knee ‘was meant to’ mean what Damisch says it means. There is something arrogant in such claims. Who are we to assume that people at the turn of the sixteenth century had no intuitive sense of such things?
These make for a really entertaining read because Bal’s personality is there and visible. She is there telling the reader a story more in the form of a lecture than as an academic text, and I would argue the book is meant to be read in this way, as if it were a lecture. It is not surprising to learn that the book was originally conceived as a series of lectures.
The second area is the structure of the book. I am a sucker for structure in writing and I love a well put together, symmetrical, journey-like structure through a book (I am a designer, what can I say?). Well, the chapters each build on what was defined and explained in the previous chapter. Each chapter has a concept as a focus and this is explored through one main pair of objects of cultural analysis and a few minor examples. The structure of Travelling Concepts reads as a manifesto for practice seen as theory – the practice of writing the book informs the theory that is the content of the book itself.
Here follows my attempt to summarise and make sense of its structure.
Then come three chapters that build on each other and are closely related.
5. Performance and Performativity
Followed by a fade out of
8. Critical Intimacy
Within this structure the content has the opportunity of constantly building on what has been said before. Now, I won’t pretend to have understood everything that is said. In fact one chapter was almost completely over my head. But here’s my very succinct interpretation.
The Introduction sets the scene in terms of defining the field of cultural analysis as an interdisciplinary field of practice, defining relationships between theory and practice as well as defining narrative as a transdiciplinary concept. In particular Bal describes how her methods will unfold, rethinking the use of concepts as methodological tools for cultural analysis of artefacts. Not to miss is a lovely summary of the philosophy of science running through Popper (Daddy Methodology) to Habermas (the Lefty) to Fayerabend (the Anarchist) to Kuhn (who made us reasonable again) (p.12). And all of this to introduce the concept of intersubjectivity.
Chapter 1 defines concept. Starting from the differences between words – and in particular how the words are used in different disciplines – and concepts Bal looks at the concept of concept, passing through interdisciplinary practices of analysis and the idea of theory as something mobile that allows objects an agency. Treating theory as an object of culture.(p 45).
The first triad of chapters on Image, Mise-en-Scene and Framing are developing the use of concepts as method of cultural analysis through which to compare two cultural artefacts. So Image presents Bernini’s St. Theresa and Louise Bourgeois’ Femme-Maison and argues (I think) about Bourgeois’ use of visual language (in particular baroque folds) to perform cultural translation of concepts from Bernini. Mise-en-Scene traces the path of the term, appropriated from opera as a concept/tool for semiotic analysis, passing through psychoanalysis and visual art, using two main examples, Beverly Semmes’ Red Dress and Bill Viola’s The Sleep of Reason. Framing poses the term in contrast to the more common context to acknowledge the process of framing as a conscious time-based act which creates meaning, as opposed to the assumed lack of agency that the term context implies. This process is discussed through an example from Bal’s own curatorial practice, the show Lady Killers! at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Foundation. The ethos of this chapter can be summarised in the following quote:
One is always set up; the pressures on objects to produce certain meanings also affect the subjects assigning the meanings. What I earlier called ‘policing’, by dogma, paradigm, or discipline, is part of this set-up. (p. 141)
The next triad of chapters is Performance and Performativity, Tradition and Intention. Performance and Performativity uses James Coleman’s Photograph in which Bal talks about Performativity as something distinct from the concept of Performance, and talks about memory as a way through which a viewer is made into a performer of a piece of work, which in turn directs this performance. Tradition uses the example of the Zwarte Piet, in particular Anna Fox’s series of photographs, to argue for a view of tradition that is dynamic, and is part of an ongoing cultural process. Intention contrasts this concept with agency and narrativity and argues that the traditional focus of interpreting artist’s work by looking for the artist’s intention misses the point of the art’s agency, what the art does to us now. The examples of Caravaggio’s Narcissus and Jeannette Christensen’s Tiden lager alle sar are used to make the point that works of art create a narrative between the viewer and the work, and the agency of the work is the ability it has to create meaning through its visuality thus affecting the narrativity of our engagement with the work.
In making visual sense of depiction we become narratively engaged (p 282)
Now, I won’t pretend to have fully understood the chapter on Critical Intimacy (or any of the rest to be honest) but in reading Chavravorty Spivak’s Critique of Postcolonial Reason several interesting points about the teacher-student and the reader-writer relationship are made, defining reading as a practice of intimacy and teaching as a practice of friendship. It also closes the book with a whole sub-chapter, Homecoming, explaining how the book can be read.
The concept at stake in this final chapter – critical intimacy – reflects the concern for keeping together what only scholars would separate: ‘form’ (whatever that may mean), ‘content’, and ‘context’; issues that go by the names of cultural, social, or political. (p289)
I don’t have enough space to quote it in full and I don’t think any excerpt would do it justice but page 317 is dedicated to a defence of lecturing as a relational teaching practice. It is quite moving.
The Afterword closes the book by referring back to the limits of knowledge, which throughout the book is often separated in knowledge-as-possession and discovery of ignorance, and how the knowledge of these limits can lead to unlimited learning.
Now on about how it informs my work. Several of the themes in the book are affecting my way of thinking about my project, but the initial interest came from Bal’s background in narratology and the interdisciplinary focus of the book. In particular Bal formulates the idea of narrative as a transdisciplinary concept which maps well against the aims of my PhD project, because I am looking at how narrative examples from film can be used to inform the design of particular objects from a user experience point of view. In a sense I am trying to transpose some sort of narrative essence from film to object and trying to embed this into the way the user experiences this object.
My project’s focus on the way a user experiences an object in a narrative way fits in well with Bal’s framework which gives importance to the agency of the work – what work does to us now – as opposed to the intention of the artist. In the case of my project the agency is in the object designed and the way in which the user, by interacting with the object, experiences this object in a narrative sense. Bal describes this as the narrativity of the viewer’s (or in my case the user’s) engagement with the work (or in my case the product).
And finally the way the book is written, especially in terms of structure, started to get me thinking about that elusive far away day when I will be writing up, and it has already given me thoughts about how I want to structure and write the final written piece. I know it’s early days, but plans are good, I’ll have something to put into question when it comes to it.
Please note: this review has been hastily put up and is still a work in progress. Comments very welcome.