Jack Tan, 13 October 2009
A milestone is a very different thing from a motorway signboard that counts down the number of miles left to various cities along the route. A milestone denotes journeying rather than commuting or simply going. At ground level, the milestone relates to our walking, and therefore to our attentiveness and awareness of ourselves as active journeying subjects. The milestone is a marker of boundaries: from past to future, from behind to ahead. It draws a line, reassuring the traveller of the route. But it is also a momentary pause and holds open a space to take stock and to consider progress. As such the milestone contains within it the paradox of movement and stillness, traversing and stopping. Indeed this is the essence of journey: a kind of moving suspension. In this active withdrawing, journeying happens.
In 1993, Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death at a bus stop in Eltham, Greenwich. In 1999, the Macpherson Public Inquiry published their report into the police mishandling of this racist murder. The report found that ‘institutional racism … exists both in the Metropolitan Police Service and … other institutions countrywide’, and that this was a major contributing factor to the mishandling of the murder investigation (Home Office 1999: para. 6.39).
Unlike personal prejudice, institutional racism is the racism of an organisation’s structure and processes resulting in racial discrimination. The Inquiry asserted that institutional racism was ‘a corrosive disease’ and ‘persists because of the failure of the organisation openly and adequately to recognise and address its existence and causes …’ (emphasis mine) [6.34].
While we measure our progress by considering the development of how law and public policy addresses the problem of racism, the Inquiry prioritises the notion of recognition. How well we address the ‘existence and causes’ of institutional racism relies on how well we are able to recognise it. This in turn relies on the quality of how we recognise ourselves and others.
The exhibition therefore is not a display about the issues arising from the Macpherson report. It invites the viewer into a journey of recognition, and asks the viewer to recognise him or herself among the works presented.
In his essay on Oedipus and ‘perspectival seeing’, Zupancic writes that,
‘The crucial point about “perspectival seeing” is not simply that I can see things only from where I stand – it goes much further: I can stand where I stand only because an intimate part of me stands on the other side, outside “me” with the objects.’ (Zupancic 2003: 110).
On his journey for facts and ‘truth’, Oedipus is blind to the fact of who he is among the objects, persons and events he encounters. He fails to recognise himself and instead he holds on to a construction of his own self-identity, his subjecthood. When the truth threatens to peel back the veil of his subjecthood, he threatens back with severity, ostracising and victimising those around him.
Oedipus’ failure to recognise arrests the journey. While he makes a physical and logical journey from one clue to another, his subjective consciousness is static, unmoving and blind. In essence he makes no journey at all.
Recognition requires an encounter, a ‘bumping into’, that reverberates back into and through me. This reverberation prompts a revision of my consciousness, threatening my subjecthood with self-annihilation (Rosen in Butler 1999: 45). If I let it, each encounter destroys who I am. In this sense, the journey of recognition leads to death, or a series of deaths. Hegel writes,
‘the individual who has not risked his life may well be recognised as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness’ (Hegel 1979: 114).
The journey of Hegel’s subjects is marked by a series of crashes or failures. They are careening cartoon characters who meet one disaster after another, but who ‘always reassemble themselves, prepare a new scene, enter the stage armed with a new set of ontological insights – and fail again.’ (Salih 2006: 51-52).
Each bump or encounter along the journey is then a milestone that throws up a challenge for me to recognise myself. It is not my failure to recognise that comprises the journey of my consciousness, but the failure and re-failure of my own self. In this utter falling apart, a chance for a reassembling occurs that allows me to see that which once I was unable to see.
Jack is an artist, curator, writer and civil rights worker interested in the relationship between art and politics. As a community campaigner and civil rights activist, Jack was involved in the anti-Iraq war media campaign, organised the Foot & Mouth Protests against the Ministry of Agriculture, and was the community and politics editor for a British Chinese community website. Currently, Jack has curated a show at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery and the Crypt in St Andrew Holborn, commemorating the 10 year anniversary of the publication of the Macpherson Report into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence.
Butler, J (1999). Subjects of Desire – Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France. Columbia University Press: New York.
Hegel, GWF (1979). Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Home Office (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, Cm 4262–I, The Stationery Office: London.
Salih, S (ed) (2006). The Judith Butler Reader. Blackwell: Oxford.
Zupancic, A (2003). The Shortest Shadow – Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two. MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts
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"The arts and humanities need to be defended and we must fight for the freedom to extend barriers, not merely to work within them. What better arena than The Battle of Ideas?"
Professor Colin Lawson, Director, Royal College of Music