LACANIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (in écrits and particularly The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis) and his followers in the arts community regarding the functions of language in the construction of consciousness and unconsciousness. See anamorphosis, counterpart, desire, drive, enunciation, gaze and glance, Imaginary, jouissance, knowledge, lack, lure, manque-à-être, méconnaissance, name-of-the-father, objet petit a, other, phallogocentric, phallus, privileged signifier, Real, Symbolic. See also ideology.
LACK: Deficiency or absence of something. In psychoanalytical contexts, this usually entails castration anxiety, but any number of other lacks have been proposed. The French ” manque” means “lack” in most expressions except for Lacan’s manque-à-être.
LAMENT: In literary jargon, a poem expressing deep grief. It is usually more personal in nature than a complaint, just as Edvard Munch’s various portrayals of bedside sorrow are more moving to today’s sensibilities than Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Socrates.
LANGSCAPE: A neologism coined by Gaile McGregor to indicate the way conceptions of the world (formulated within language) actually alter perceptions of the world (expressed in the landscape). The notion is developed at length in her book Wacousta Syndrome: Explorations in the Canadian Langscape.
LANGUAGE: Adherents to formalism held that language and visual art were completely incompatible. For example, one of the more quotable quotes of the minimalist generation was, “If I wanted to send a message, I’d call Western Union.” The implication, of course, is that mere message-sending was beneath the dignity of formalist reductivism. Since the advent of postmodern thought, however, virtually every advanced discussion of art treats it as having very strong similarities with language, if not exact parallels. This is especially true of discourses influenced by deconstruction, Lacanian thought, linguistics, and semiotics. The idea actually predates postmodernism by decades. John Dewey said in Art and Experience in 1934, “Because objects of art are expressive [see expression theory, expressivity], they are a language. Rather they are many languages.” Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art, first published in 1969, proposed four language functions for art — representation, description, exemplification and expression — which collectively prove that art had some cognitive merit. (See also nominalism.) It has been objected that visual art does not have anything like the set of grammatical rules that systematizes language, as is required in Iouri Lotman’s definition of language as “any system of communication which uses signs arranged in a particular way” (La Structure du texte artistique). Some writers clarify the relationship with the notion that visual culture is “language-like,” rather than a language per se. This allows John Gilmour, for example, to say in Picturing the World that an artist is a creative agent whose medium is really forms of cultural meaning and practice, not a subjective self simply unloading expression on the world. Following the lines of argument in Joseph Margolis’s Art and Philosophy and Culture and Cultural Entities, Gilmour also points out that even language is only language-like, for the rules of grammar are only a sort of statistical common denominator of current practice. These rules become institutionalized and used as a mechanism of social control (see critique of institutions, power). Here, Gilmour’s theory is analogous to some of the assumptions about language current in l’écriture féminine. For a different sense of “language,” see langue and parole.
LANGUE AND PAROLE: French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (see Saussurean) coined these words, sometimes translated “language” and “speech,” respectively, to differentiate language conceived as a comprehensive abstract structure from language conceived as the actual performance of an individual. Noam Chomsky’s terms “competence” and “performance” are nearly synonymous but are not as fashionable in contemporary discourse (see generative-transformational).
LATE CAPITALISM: Writers who have a common interest in Marxism will often nevertheless have slightly different things in mind when they use the phrase “late capitalism.” For some, it means rather generally the nature of capitalism after the second industrial revolution, or capitalism of the twentieth century. Lenin had a narrower range of reference, explicitly associating the twentieth-century development of dominant monopolies with imperialism, which he regarded as the logical result of the merger of bank capital with industrial capital into a financial oligarchy of sorts. More recent writers seem to have aligned late capitalism even more narrowly with the notion of a postindustrial economy.
LATENT CONTENT: In the Freudian analysis of dreams (see dream-work), the underlying or repressed material which is only expressed in disguised, symbolic form. The symbolic form is the manifest content. If one were to dream of a train speeding into a tunnel, the manifest content would be the literal imagery: a train, a tunnel, railroad tracks, etc. Once the psychoanalysis commenced, the images would be interpreted as figurative emblems of sexual intercourse (the phallic train, the vaginal tunnel). The presumption is that although the dreamer is unwilling to acknowledge his or her real thoughts and feelings, they must find expression, even if only in disguised form. This principle makes it possible to interpret artworks from a psychosexual perspective even when they have been produced by individuals who have no knowledge of Freud (e.g., R. Liebert on Michelangelo, Mary Matthews Gedo on Picasso, etc.) or by individuals who resist specific interpretation as hostile to the poetic spirit (e.g., René Magritte, whose Time Transfixed features a train speeding out of a fireplace). Most of the Surrealists are a special case because they were quite conscious of and familiar with Freudian thought.
LAWS OF THOUGHT: In informal logic, there are three basic principles which govern whether or not an argument is reasonable. 1. The law of identity: X is X at the same time and in the same respect, regardless of change of name or order of presentation. E.g., “Mulroney was the Prime Minister of Canada in 1991″ = “the Prime Minister of Canada in 1991 was Mulroney”; or “Kingston is the city in which Sir John A. MacDonald lived in 1844″ = “the city in which Sir John A. MacDonald lived in 1844 is Kingston.” Compare the general predication, however, of “Kingston is a city,” and note that it is not reversible without qualification. 2. The law of non-contradiction: a conjunctive claim (i.e., one that uses “and”) cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same respect, for that would be logically inconsistent. E.g., “p and -p” is false; one cannot be both a painter and not a painter at the same time. 3. The law of the excluded middle: for any statement “p,” the related disjunctive claim (i.e., one that uses “or”) “p or -p” must be true. E.g., one must be either a painter or not a painter. These laws are clearly related: “p is p”; “p and -p” must be false; “p or -p” must be true.
LEGEND: 1. A specific instance, usually in the form of a short tale, of folklore. Legends often appear in visual art, as in Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. 2. A caption or illustrative remark superimposed on charts and maps.
LEIPSOMENA: Remainders. In Derridean deconstruction, one can never account for all of the interpretive possibilities of a particular text, preventing the interpreter from invoking closure. That is, a particular metaphor, for example, can never be said to mean such and such and nothing else because “metaphor is never innocent,” as Derrida said, and always has some remainders — some strings attached, as it were. Sometimes these leipsomena lead into new interpretive dimensions, and sometimes they just sit there, resolutely refusing to contribute in any holistic way to the apparent meaning of the work.
LEITMOTIF: In literature, the reappearance of a verbal image, a concept and/or a situation to create the impression of a unifying theme. Max Ernst’s frequent use of the word “perturbation” in the captions of his La Femme 100 têtes and his frequent use of images of fingers touching eyes could be so considered.
LEXEME: Term used in some linguistics to identify the fundamental reference which underlies and thus unifies the varying inflections of a word (compare agglutinating, inflecting, isolating). E.g., “run, runs, running, ran” are variants of the lexeme “run.” In The Conflict of Interpretations, Paul Ricoeur uses the idea to help establish the isotopy of an utterance.
LIBERAL ARTS: From the Latin for “work befitting a free man,” as opposed to the ” vulgar arts,” understood as menial trades suitable only for serfs and other undesirables. The phrase was is in use in ancient Greece, but it was systematized in the Middle Ages into the “trivium” (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the “quadrivium” (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, music). Neither the antique nor the medieval conceptions of the liberal arts held the actual practice of art-making (in whatever form) in high esteem. This only changed in the Renaissance, when the intellectual aspects of art-making were emphasized, enabling fine arts to be considered one of the humanities. Although this foregrounding of the artist’s intellectuality was gradually repudiated in the Romantic era (see bohemianism), the connection between visual art and academic or scholarly pursuit has remained strong, particularly since the rapid growth of liberal arts colleges in the 1960s.
LIBERALISM: Originating in eighteenth-century political philosophy, the still-current notion of basic civil rights, including such things as freedom of the individual, freedom of association, freedom of religion, free enterprise and free trade. In the 1960s, liberalism was associated with permissiveness. In some contemporary postmodern contexts, liberalism is associated with disinterestedness and value-freedom and all three are dismissed as unattainable, fantastic goals (see political correctness).
LIBIDINALLY DRIVEN: Friedrich Nietzsche once asserted that Raphael’s Madonnas were the products of an overheated sexual imagination which could not find literal expression. Sigmund Freud (see Freudian) added further momentum to this notion of unconscious motivation by describing it as a drive fueled by the libido. In some current writing, the conception is applied to everything from the act of interpretation (see erotics of engagement) to relations between teachers and students (see iatrogenic disease).
LICENSED REBELS: The conservative art critic Hilton Kramer feels that alternative galleries and artist-run centres were invented in an economic heyday which sought to give expression to the individualistic American spirit, implying that their essentially adversarial stance was once the unique characteristic of mainstream American culture. As such, they were “licensed rebels,” a notion which was once held not to be contradictory. But since these spaces were the creation and permanent wards of government patronage, their adversarial stance means that they always were a sort of “negative cultural luxury” which American society can no longer afford to support. Many of Kramer’s essays in New Criterion in the early 1990s offer a variation on this theme.
LIMINALITY: The condition of being on a threshold or in a “betwixt and between space” (Victor Turner, Forest of Symbols). Inspired by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep’s use of liminality in his studies of social rites of passage, Claude Gandelman has used the concept to analyze the imagery of doors in pictorial art (Reading Pictures, Viewing Texts). Gandelman does not cite Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday, which features a self-portrait standing beside a winged lemur on a landing between many doors, but in his scheme its liminality would be a metaphor for the Surrealist condition, which is liminal by definition (the resolution of the states of waking and dreaming). Straightforward limens include doors, passages, windows, and window-sills, and it has even been argued in literary studies that the seashore is a prime signifier of liminality. If so, then everything from Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea to John Constable’s Haywain can be vigorously reconsidered. For an application in contemporary artwriting, see Scott Ellis, “Genital Embryogenesis.” C 28 (Winter 1991): 50-51. Among the various related terms are “multiliminal” (having many thresholds) and subliminal.
LINGUISTIC INFLATION: The progressive deterioration of a language’s ability to convey certain meanings with appropriate force. E.g., where “terrific” once meant the defining characteristic of something truly frightening, it now means something “very good.” Similarly, where “tremendous” once meant “causing one to shake with dread,” it now means “very big” or “very intense.” This process is exacerbated in contemporary culture by advertising, which typically chooses words whose original meanings far exceed the properties of the products they are designed to sell. A soap powder, for instance, is “wonderful,” even though it is hardly “awesome” or “miraculous.” We no longer “sign” a document, we “sign off on” a document. Processes no longer produce a “result” but an “end result.” (For another instance, see literal.) To get the same effect that a single word once conveyed, we now have to add adjectives, qualifying phrases, and/or unnecessary prepositions, just as we spend more money to buy the same products that less money once bought. As such, linguistic inflation is a seldom recognized contributing factor to indeterminacy and polysemy.
LINGUISTICS: Any of a variety of scientific approaches to the study of language. Linguistics concerns itself with the use, meaning and structural relationships of words (see pragmatics, semantics, syntactics), and it has had far-reaching impact on other fields ranging from anthropology (Claude Lévi-Srauss) to artwriting. Of particular importance are the basic Saussurean concepts employed in semiotics and their influences on deconstruction and Lacanian thought. Also influential are the diverse BarthesianPeircean ideas, despite the latter’s greater applicability to pictorial signs. Also important, but very nearly ignored in artwriting, are the Chomskyan investigations of linguistic principles. Linguistics in general may be “diachronic,” studying the historical changes of language over time, or “synchronic,” studying the state of language at a given time. One encounters both terms in current artwriting. See also agglutinating, inflecting, isolating, extralinguistic, hermeneutics, intrasignificant, paralinguistic.
LISIBLE: French for “legible” or “readable.” See text. The term is problematic, since “legibility” implies something is there to be read. Some theorists, especially those influenced by deconstruction and indeterminacy, deny that this is the case. Cf anamorphosis, panopticon.
LITANY: A ritualistic speech, chant or petition, as in the long, formal incantations of the organized churches. Some dictionaries simply give “a long and boring speech,” which is probably what Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard had in mind when they gave their anthology applications of linguistic ideas. These remain more popular for contemporary artwriting than Feminism and Art History the subtitle Questioning the Litany. In this use, “litany” refers metaphorically (see metaphor) to the canon, which is the ritualistic invocation of the “saints” of art history (see hagiography).
LITERACY: The ability to read and write and/or having the ability to demonstrate accomplishments, education, knowledge, etc. The idea has been transposed and disseminated across a wide variety of disciplines, but not without contradiction and complexity. Music literacy is generally understood to be the ability to read music in printed form, whereas common conceptions of visual literacy range from little more than art appreciation to more sophisticated analyses based on the principles of linguistics. Mathematical literacy is sometimes called numeracy, while mathematical illiteracy is innumeracy. One of the more contentious variations on the theme is cultural literacy. See also interpretation.
LITERAL: “According to the letter,” the actual, non-metaphorical or primary sense of an utterance, as opposed to a figurative expression. Taken literally, a figurative statement like “she was on cloud nine” is immediately recognized as absurd. Strangely, visual images are often taken to be literal in spite of their figurativity (compare perceptualism). Only the most familiar conventions, like a personification of justice as a blind woman, immediately escape the literal level of meaning. (The word “literally,” incidentally, is very frequently misused these days as an intensifier. Someone who just saw a particularly exciting movie might say “I was literally blown away,” which is a ridiculous instance of linguistic inflation.)
LITOTES: A subspecies of irony or understatement in which something is said by negating its opposite. In vernacular speech, for example, “not bad” means “good,” and a more refined version of the device is common in English poetry. The conception might be of some use in discussions of indulgence or indictment. Since negation of this sort is not common in visual art, the idea is more likely to be found in the form of meiosis. Compare bathos, hyperbole.
LIVRET: A small handbook used to identify and explain works of art hung in academic Salons in the nineteenth century, often with much longer titles than those by which the works became known. The livret is a forerunner of the modern exhibition catalogue.
LOCALE: The actual geographical and/or physical setting of a narrative, as opposed to the immaterial aspects of setting, like the protagonist’s state of mind or the topos of the work. In David’s Oath of the Horatii, for example, the locale is an atrium in a Roman house, whereas the setting includes the locale along with other background information like the characters’ determined state of mind. The topos would be the exemplum virtutis.
LOGICAL POSITIVISM: A branch of modern philosophy that demanded empirical verification of statements, on the one hand, and rigorous examination of the logic used to prepare observations and make statements about them on the other. Any statement that is unverifiable by any observation cannot be determined to be either true or false. As a result, it is simply meaningless — an exclamation of preference or emotional response (see boo-hooray theory). Since metaphysical philosophy is by definition unverifiable, logical positivism displaced it with examinations of the nature of meaning. The most famous practitioner was probably Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose interesting remarks on colour have recently been published in a slender anthology.
LOGO: A modern abbreviation of “logotype,” originally meaning a single symbol that represented an entire word, as in the ampersand “&.” By extension, a logo is now any simple motif or symbol which can be immediately recognized, as in innumerable commercial applications and virtually all instances of corporate sponsorship. The simplest examples are visual devices like the CBS eye and the NBC peacock.
LOGOCENTRIC: Pertaining either to the notion that words have a necessary relation to the things they designate or to the notion that words have determinate meaning. Any world-view that considers words as objects rather than as social relations implies a certain presence hovering just behind the word itself, giving deconstruction a toe-hold in its struggle against logocentrism. Paul Berman’s Debating P.C. puts it more succinctly: “the intellectual tradition of Western civilization that has led to the errors of rationalism and humanism.” See also phallogocentric.
LYRIC: Originally linked to lyric poetry, as deriving from the traditional image of the poet as a single figure expressing his or her emotions to the accompaniment of a lyre. The term is now used to describe any type of expression in words, images, movements, etc., which emphasizes subjective states, marked use of the imagination (see fancy), and “musical” forms. Matisse’s more graceful, curvilinear works are often called lyrical. One artist of the middle 1970s even tried to start a movement called lyrical conceptualism.
MACABRE: The principal, defining characteristic of a work emphasizing the gruesome or morbid. Alfred Kubin’s prints, like Butcher’s Feast, are notorious examples.
MACHINE: Deriving from the same sense of “contrivance” that underlies “machinery” and “machination,” certain grandiose works of (particularly academic) art that have a rather obvious allegory or other special significance are sometimes called “machines.”
MACROHISTORY: Antonym of microhistory — i.e., the historical study of very broad patterns of cultural change.
MACULA: A blemish, spot or stain. (Compare “immaculate,” meaning spotless.) Jacques Derrida (see Derridean) uses the term as one of his many metphors for an aporia in a text.
MAESTA: A Maestà is a painting of the Madonna with Angels and Saints, the most famous of which are arguably Duccio’s and Simone Martini’s (see, for example, Duccio’s). The word itself means nothing more than “majesty.”
MAGICO-RELIGIOUS: The defining characteristic of art presumed to have had a ritual purpose, whether directed at spiritual ends or purely practical ones. Much paleolithic art, like the Lascaux cave paintings, is thought to have been magico-religious in order to ensure success in the hunt. Some of these practices may actually have succeeded coincidentally, rather than due to some effective communication with supernatural forces (compare shaman). E.g., one practice of divination in the Arctic far north was to heat deer scapulas until they cracked. The hunters would then follow the direction of the cracks, believing that the gods had shown them the way. What success they had was certainly due instead to the randomization produced by the practice, thus ensuring that they do not exhaust the supply of game in one area.
MAGISTERIAL DISCOURSE: An approximate synonym for metanarrative.
MAKING SPECIAL: The valuation of something as distinctive and exceptional. The term is directly used in ethology, which concludes that the evolutionary value of art as a human behaviour has nothing to do with expression, history, investment, meaning, etc., but has something to do with “making special.” Exactly how this might be the case is not very clear. The concept also operates implicitly in such things as the “is” of artistic identification.
MALAPROPISM: The erroneous use of an inappropriate word in the place of a similar but appropriate one. The term derives from Mrs. Malaprop in R. B. Sheridan’s The Rivals, who erred humorously with phrases like “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” One wonders if there is not some visual analogy to this, as in Magritte’s exchange of the features of a torso for those of a face in Le Viol.
MANIFEST CONTENT: The literal imagery of a dream or, by extension, of an artwork. See latent content.
MANNERISM: Emphasis on the manner of presentation rather than the substance of the presentation, as in the cliché “all style and no substance.” This includes departures from normal appearance via distortion, eccentricity, exaggeration, stylization, etc. The most immediately recognizable type of mannerism is characterized by abnormally elongated but nonetheless graceful figures, ranging from Parmigianino’s elongated madonnas to Ingres’s various odalisques, Modigliani’s attenuated figures and beyond. Architectural mannerism is thought of as a playful misuse of the classical vocabulary of forms, as in the famous slipping keystones in the arches of Giuliano Romano’s Palazzo del Tè. In this respect, a good deal of architectural postmodernism is mannerist (e.g., Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans).
MANQUE: See lack.
MANQUE-À-ÊTRE: Lacanian term for what he called a “want-to-be,” a species of desire in which the individual wants to be the other which he perceives as lacking in himself.
MAP, MAPPING: Maps and mapping often enter postmodern discourse in their senses of representations or detailed surveys of a particular field. Influenced by linguistics and the notion of différance, however, artwriters usually implicitly accept a dictum of general semantics: “the map is not the territory” — i.e., the signifier is not the signified but only a representation, a social construct. For a related application, see mediation.
MARGINAL: The opposite of central: in the margins, peripheral or non-essential. Visible minorities and other oppressed groups are often described as marginal. To make others feel less important by associating them with what one considers dispensable or superfluous is to marginalize them. A classic example is the typical exclusion of women and non-white artists from the art-historical canon.
MARGINALIA: Not to be confused with marginal, except in the literal sense of “in the margins.” Marginalia is material written in the margins of a book as a running commentary by a reader. The most famous verbal example in art history is William Blake’s marginalia to Sir Joshua Reynold’s Discourses, wherein Blake says such things as “The following ‘Discourse’ is particularly Interesting to Blockheads….” Quick sketches in the nineteenth-century Salon livrets are the visual equivalent of marginalia.
MARXIAN: Pertaining to the ideas of economist/sociologist Karl Marx, whose conceptions of base and superstructure, commodity fetishism, dialectic, historical materialism, and ideology have been elaborated into Marxism by his many followers. Some, but not all writers maintain a very strict distinction between “Marxian,” the adjectival form of Marx, and “Marxist,” pertaining to the political system subsequently embellished by followers.
MARXISM: Any of a variety of theories and critical practices deriving from the principles of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and a number of followers. The chief principle is historical materialism, which, when applied to the criticism of the arts, holds that meaning is determined by the economic, historical, material and social circumstances of the era in which the work was produced, rather than by an abstract, isolated genius supposedly residing within the visionary artist (see visionary mode of artistic creation). It is thus fundamentally opposed to the pseudotranshistorical. Some writers maintain a sharp distinction between “vulgar Marxism” and “authentic Marxism” (see vulgar [sense 3]). Given that artistic value is thought by Marxists to be the result of impersonal, historical determinants, it is curious that many celebrated Marxists have had a relatively traditional attitude towards the canon. Leon Trotsky, for example, argued in Literature and Revolution against treating classic works (see classic, classical) as “mere historical documents,” preferring that there should be “a directly aesthetic relationship” and that art shold be evaluated according to “its own laws.” Georg Lukács noted Marxism’s “respect for the classical heritage of mankind.” In artwriting, the most well-known Marxist critiques are arguably T. J. Clark’s of Courbet and Serge Guilbaut’s of abstract expressionism. John Tagg’s Grounds of Dispute comes the closest to dispensing with the canon, but, like the others, it says little about why hypothetically identical circumstances of production would produce radically different types of art. See also dialectical materialism.
MASCULINITY: The body of characteristics conventionally understood to be desirable in men — i.e., manliness, self-sacrifice, strength, virility, etc. The new masculinity argues that most of these characteristics are social constructs which oppress men as much as patriarchy oppresses women.
MASCULISM: By analogy with feminism, this word is occasionally used as a synonym for the new masculinity and therefore as the antithesis of the traditional connotations of masculinity and patriarchy.
MASQUE: A subspecies of the carnivalesque; a pageant, procession or other form of spectacle involving masked figures and general revelry. Masques are thought to have begun in pagan rituals, but by the seventeenth century they had evolved into extremely expensive and highly organized entertainments for aristocratic audiences.
MASQUERADE: Occasionally used in the context of discussions of ideology, which operates unconsciously (i.e., masquerades) and therefore makes something historically specific appear to be timeless and universal. Althusser (see Althusserian) called this the “false obviousness of everyday life” — false because what is taken to be self-evident is in fact dependent upon ideological control.
MASS CULTURE: Constituents of culture that evolve in similar patterns across diverse components of large societies as a consequence of common exposure to the mass media. See high art (culture).
MASS MEDIA: Any form of communication reaching very large numbers of people, including movies, newspapers, radio, television, and popular books and periodicals. The mass media are characteristic of complex, industrialized societies with a broad middle class (see bourgeois).
MASTER NARRATIVE: See metanarrative.
MASTERPIECE: This word is currently thought to indicate something of such superior quality and genius that it can transcend the historical circumstances of its production and enter a supposedly universal plane of timelessness (see greatness, posterity, pseudotranshistorical, timelessness). Originally, however, it only meant the piece which a maturing student artist would make to demonstrate his competence to take on students of his own, hence becoming a master. Because of this rather obvious corruption, postmodern thought in general views the current meaning with strong suspicions.
MASTER TROPES: See trope.
MATERIAL: See evidence.
MATERIAL HISTORY: The historical study of the material artifacts of a culture, regardless of the identity of those objects and without significant distinctions between high art, low art and utilitarian articles. Studies of folk art are usually informed by the practices of material history, which commonly lack the advanced vocabulary of newer art criticism.
MATERIALISM: The philosophy that only tangible and perceivable things, material in nature, or the byproducts of such things, constitute what actually exists. See determinism, dialectical materialism, epiphenomenon, historical materialism, mechanistic materialism.
MATRIARCHAL AESTHETIC: See feminism, matriarchy.
MATRIARCHY: Literally, the rule of the mother. A social organization in which women are the heads of their families and descent and inheritance are reckoned in the female line. Matriarchy is usually conceived as the polar opposite of patriarchy. Because the latter, in the discourse of feminism, is almost universally construed as a negative phenomenon, matriarchy has come to be understood, rather uncritically, as inherently positive.
MATRIFOCAL: Having the mother, maternity, matriarchy or any environment of caring, nurturing, and the like as a centre of interest or focus.
MEANING: 1. The contemporary interpretation of culture in general and artwriting in particular are preoccupied with the nature of meaning and how it is produced. The discussion has become so complex that even to define the word entails critical argument, sometimes heated dispute and the exposure of political convictions in circumstances once consider to be essentially apolitical. Standard dictionaries do not really help, because they usually begin with such things as “that which is intended to be expressed or which actually is expressed.” For the newer artwriters, this is fence-sitting from the very start, for the definition does not differentiate between intentions and the accrual of accidental and other meanings. Meaning can also be the end or purpose of something, as in the meaning of life, and the more vague notion of unspecific expressiveness or significance, as in a meaningful glance. One frequently finds writers distinguishing between denotation and connotations. I. A. Richards has gone further, discerning four different facets of meaning: “sense” (denotation), “feeling” (the audience’s response towards sense), “tone” the author’s attitude toward the audience), and “intention” (the effect of the other three, whether conscious or not). 2. In Validity in Interpretation, E. D. Hirsch attempted to stipulate a narrower definition of the word in order to lay the debate to rest: he distinguished “meaning,” the discovery of the author’s intentions, from “significance,” any imaginable subsidiary meanings, not necessarily intended by the author but construed by an audience. For example, both David’s Oath of the Horatii and Courbet’s Burial at Ornans were understood to carry political messages. Since it is not clear whether these messages were what the artists originally had in mind, the works can only be said to have had “significance,” rather than meaning per se. In these instances, however, both artists subsequently became consciously involved in the significances they had engendered. That this is not always the case was clearly recognized by Marcel Duchamp in his short essay “The Creative Act” (see posterity). Hirsch anticipated current writers’ frequent references to “possibilities of meaning” by saying that a possibility, after all, is only that, while the meaning is actually what is meant. See also meaning effect, meaning in and meaning to.
MEANING EFFECT: See isotopy.
MEANING IN AND MEANING TO: Phrases used by E.D. Hirsch to clarify his distinction of meaning from significance. What an image or text means for a particular audience may be less a matter of what is actually in the object than what is in the audience. “Meaning in” is thus what the work means according to the intentions of its creator, whereas “meaning to” is simply what it signifies to someone else, however invalid that might be. See also interpretatio excedens, read into, reminds.
MEANING TO: See meaning in and meaning to.
MECHANISTIC MATERIALISM: A type of determinism which argues that causes create effects in a straightforward, predictable, and irreversible fashion. In the context of political criticism, it is associated with vulgar Marxism.
MÉCONNAISSANCE: Alan Sheridan, translator of Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, put this as “failure to recognize” or “misconstruction,” and Lacan himself aligned it with scotoma (a blind spot) in his description of the mirror stage. The gist of it is that the subject does not recognize what is Real but only what is Imaginary. See also knowledge.
MEDAL: An award, commemoration or decoration, usually in the form of a badge, coin, medallion, or shield, usually made of metal and ornamented with a variety of techniques — most commonly types of low relief, embossing and engraving — and a variety of subjects, though portraits and symbolic attributes are the most common. The Canadian Portrait Academy offers these examples of Academicians of the Canadian Portrait Academy: Dora de Pedery Hunt and Christian Cardell Corbet.
MEDIA: 1. The plural of “medium,” the material or technique with which an artist works. 2. An abbreviation of mass media.
MEDIA ACTIVISM: Any critique of institutions or critique of representation directed at the mass media. For examples, see culture jamming.
MEDIATION: A fundamental conception in postmodernism is that nothing exists in an innocent state and that nothing can be understood objectively because everything is mediated by all manner of intervening mechanisms. Social behaviour, for example, cannot be objectively assessed because the observer is either a member of the observed group, in which case s/he is subject to the same taboos of collective consciousness, or s/he is not a member of the observed group, which thus pollutes the observed behaviour. Similar assertions are current in quantum physics, where the presence of an observer or an observer’s instrument affects the result of the investigation. The analogy in artwriting is that the meaning of an artwork is in part determined by the institutional mechanisms which mediate our experience of it (see critique of institutions). Native artists, for example, have drawn attention to the mediation of museums, which rip ethnographic artifacts from their original context and replace their genuine social meanings with depoliticized aesthetic ones. Mediation is now discussed in nearly every discipline. Even in works directed at popular audiences, one can find acceptable definitions of mediation: “I want to make readers aware that maps [see map, mapping], like speeches and paintings, are authored collections of information and also are subject to distortions arising from ignorance, greed, ideological blindness, or malice” (Mark Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps). See also frame.
MEGALOGRAPHY: See genres.
MEIOSIS: A type of satirical understatement, as in litotes. Goya’s Family of Charles IV and The Junta of the Philippines might qualify, since both diminish their ostensible subjects (and since litotes derives from the Greek for “diminution”).
MELODRAMA: A narrative which seeks primarily to evoke strong feelings in the audience by portraying sensational events in an often excessively passionate manner and usually without sincere regard for ennobling sentiment, ethics, motivation, etc. Melodrama can appear in any style, in any era. Examples are more likely to be found in the work of artists traditionally considered of second rank or lower, like J.-P.-A. Antigna’s The Fire. Occasionally, artists traditionally given first rank exhibit melodramatic tendencies in works produced in the years before or after their major period, as in the turbulent early works of Cézanne (e.g., The Rape).
MEME: Under construction, but see mytheme for now.
MEMOIR: A type of autobiography (compare autobiographical art) in which the principle interest usually resides in significant events or persons other than the author him- or herself, although s/he was a witness to them.
META-: A prefix meaning “above,” “after,” “beyond,” or “superior” when used in critical discourse, as in metacriticism, metafiction, metalanguage, metanarrative, metathesis, etc.
METACRITICISM: The critical examination of the premises and processes of criticism itself, independent of the particular objects of its investigations, or the criticism of criticism. For example, an evaluation of a work by Niki de Saint Phalle would constitute an act of criticism. In contrast, an analysis of the premises enabling one to make such judgements in general would be part of a metacritical project. Much postmodern thought involves metacritical activity. See also theoretical criticism, theory.
METADISCOURSE: See metanarrative.
META-ETHICAL: Where ethics is popularly understood as the study of what constitutes appropriate behaviour, etc., meta-ethical thought studies the logical and other mechanisms which enable any type of ethics to be formulated. In other words, meta-ethical writing is not concerned with the specific contents of a particular branch of ethical philosophy but with the way in which that philosophy is constructed and how it relates to other constructions.
METAFICTION: Also called “surfiction,” this is a type of fiction that draws attention to itself as such, severing the traditional mirror-like connections between art and life (see Patricia Waugh’s Metafiction). The term is usually used of literature, as in Linda Hutcheon’s “historiographic metafiction,” or historical writing which draws attention to its own fictionality (see her Canadian Postmodern). An analogous application might be made to history painting which draws attention to its own fictionality through devices like deictics or overt anachronism, as in Mark Tansey’s Triumph of the New York School. An application of the same idea in history-writing is called metahistory. See also perceptualism, realism.
METAHISTORY: 1. Generally, the philosophy of history, which considers the principles giving rise to the notion of historical progression and to the narratives which describe it. 2. More specifically, the title of a Hayden White book describing historical writing in terms analogous to those of metafiction and metanarrative. Very simply, White’s thesis is that an objective history is impossible: “the very claim to have discovered…formal coherence in the historical record brings with it theories…which have ideological implications” (see ideology). Accordingly, postmodern metahistory must self-consciously raise questions of power and control in the act of writing. Cf historiography.
METALANGUAGE: Language about language. In various types of semiotics, the language under investigation is the “object language,” while the language used to perform the investigation is the “metalanguage.” For postmodernism influenced by relativism, the very notion of a metalanguage carries a disagreeable connotation, possibly because it seems to be an impossibility: looking at language through language might appear to be analogous to using a magnifying glass to examine itself. To achieve a state of objectivity, the metalanguage would have to stand outside history. This not be the case, for true objectivity is not necessarily assumed in practice. For example, in a hypothetical American article about the German language, the object language would be German and the metalanguage English. There is not normally an assumption that English somehow stands outside history.
METALEPSIS: A literary term indicating an extreme type of mixed metaphor — the extreme compression of a sequence of allusions, tropes or other figures into an image or space normally too small to accommodate them all without sacrificing a degree of sense. (”Lepsis” derives from the Greek for “seizure.”) C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon’s Handbook to Literature gives as an example these lines from Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”: “A shudder in the loins engenders there/The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/And Agamemnon dead.” The first line alludes to Zeus raping Leda, resulting in the birth of Helen of Troy, who was the principal cause of the Trojan War alluded to in the second line. Agamemnon, mentioned in the third line, was the leader of the Greek armies in that war, but he died at the hands of his own wife Clytemnestra, who was the half-sister of Helen. The poetic seizure is that the “shudder in the loins” does not logically cause the death of Agamemnon. Because complex visual images involve the simultaneous presentation of allusions, tropes, and other figures, even more intricate convulsions of meanings might take place. A case in point is the plate entitled “Quiétude” in Max Ernst’s La Femme 100 têtes. A simple description evokes multiple allusions to metaphors developed in contemporary Surrealist literature: it shows a sleeping man, recalling the narcotic of the unconscious image described by Aragon (Paris Peasant), while his comfortable recliner suggests the receptive state of mind advocated by Breton (Manifesto of Surrealism). His immersion in the sea evokes a Surrealist sense of dislocation, like the aquarium-world of Aragon’s Passage de l’Opéra (Paris Peasant) and the immense, unknown labyrinth beneath Breton’s Place Dauphine (Nadja). The arm in the sea below the chair indicates that Woman is at home in this mysterious element. The periscope allows her a role as either a prostitute with a provocative glance (Leiris, Manhood) or a seer of occult marvels (Nadja), but it also keeps her from breaking the surface and becoming a conscious, cultural being. It also isolates her eye as a signifier of sexuality, as in Bataille (The Story of the Eye). The building on the promontory suggests Aragon’s description of bath-houses as erotic temples (Paris Peasant). André Masson also exploited the motif, linking it to the nature of thought. This might explain why there is also a water spout around it, for a similar fountain, deriving from Bishop Berkeley, appears as a metaphor of thought in Breton’s Nadja. Berkeley’s philosophy of subjective idealism (see idealism [sense 2]) is thus invoked and enlisted in the form of catachresis to build an image of continual sexual excitation of a near-religious sort that occurs only in the mind of the Surrealist.
METALINGUISTICS: The investigation of the relations between language and its cultural context.
METANARRATIVE: Any narrative formed by putatively scientific, determinate knowledge. For example, a standard art history textbook is published with the tacit assumption that it is a fair and accurate representation of the truth, but it is easy to imagine how it could also be a mediation of the material it describes. (E.g., it buys into the myth of the masterpiece, or it automatically excludes women’s art as insufficiently influential or important). The real usefulness of the term is found in rejections of its pretension to objectivity. See also metahistory (sense 2) and the material on Lyotard under postmodernism.
METAPHOR: A trope consisting of a comparison without using the words “like” or “as,” as in “a mighty fortress is our God” or “my love is a rose.” Generally, a metaphor poetically conveys an impression about something relatively unfamiliar by drawing an analogy between it and something familiar. In the preceding examples, God and love are unfamiliar, but the respective impressions of strong/inviolable/protective and beautiful-but-short-lived/sweet-but-thorny are effectively conveyed. Metaphors are extremely common in visual images: e.g., Ingres’ various Odalisque paintings draw comparisons between the intoxication produced by hookah pipes and that produced by women socially constructed first and foremost to be sensual. The familiar thing is sometimes called the vehicle (i.e., the means by which the new impressions are conveyed), while the unfamiliar idea being expressed is sometimes called the tenor (sense 2). Conservative analysis of metaphor used to lead to conclusions about determinate meaning, but Jacques Derrida maintained that “metaphor is never innocent,” implying that unforeseen meanings accrue (see indeterminacy). As a result, discussion about metaphor has reached new heights in postmodernism (see, for example, Paul Ricoeur’s The Rule of Metaphor). See also concatenation relation, metonymy, mixed metaphor, selection relation, vehicle shift.
METAPHORICITY: The state or condition of being metaphor.
METAPHYSICAL: Pertaining to metaphysics, originally the section of Aristotle’s writings that came after (meta) his discussions of the physical world (the physics) for the purpose of discussing such things as the ultimate nature of existence. As a result, any branch of philosophy that deals with something beyond verifiable physical experience (see verification), like the soul or the existence of God, is metaphysical. For most postmodern thinkers, “metaphysical” is a term of opprobrium, as in metaphysics of presence. See also metaphysical realism.
METAPHYSICAL REALISM: See realism.
METAPHYSICS OF PRESENCE: Deconstruction argues that certainty about determinate meaning is an impossibility founded upon the unverifiable notion that there is some sort of absolute ground of signification. Practitioners of deconstruction see this hope for a guarantee of meaning as utopian (see utopia) and metaphysical. Since presence indicates the hypothetical guarantor, “metaphysics of presence” simply means the delusion that words are objects and that they have stable meaning, instead of the absence and indeterminacy recognized by deconstruction or the unstable social relations studied by Marxism and feminism. See also interpolation, logocentric.
METATHESIS: Transposition, as in the switching of sounds in the pronunciation of a word, as in “aks” for “ask,” “nucular” for “nuclear” or “purdy” for “pretty.” Dada collages, like Hoch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife, often involve metathetical elements — body parts switched within a figure (like an eye for a head), body parts switched between figures (like a baby with a beard), and body parts transposed with the parts of the machinery the figures are using.
METHODOLATRY: Feminist philosopher and theologian Mary Daly uses the word “methodolatry” to denote an idolatrous worship of supposedly objective methodologies (see methodology) leading towards determinacy. As such, it rejects scientific disinterestedness and intellectual neutrality.
METHODOLOGY: A system of methods, principles, rules, etc., organizing an inquiry and guiding the practitioner as to the appropriate means of carrying out an analysis, evaluation, investigation, etc. “Methodology” itself does not connote any particular sort of approach in criticism, but some feel the conception in general has a connotation of scientificity which they find disagreeable. See, for example, methodolatry.
METONYMIC SKID: Barthesian image of the way in which any utterance can generate a hypothetically infinite number of connotations by way of metonymy. A classic (see classic, classical) piece of writing supposedly works by placing limitations on the range of the metonymic skid, whereas many modern works do not bother to do so.
METONYMY: A trope in which the literal name of the thing meant is replaced by the name of another thing with which it is closely associated, as when “What is the word from the throne?” means “what does the king or queen have to say about such and such?” In visual images, metonyms can be as simple as the use of an attribute, as a crown of thorns signifies Christ when He is Himself absent. However, metonymy is currently being reinterpreted in the light of the investigations of Roman Jakobson, who aligned it with the concatenation relation.
MICROHISTORY: Antonym of macrohistory — i.e., the historical study of very minute patterns of cultural change.
MILIEU: Synonym for context, particularly that of the secondary sort.
MIMESIS: Mimesis is a species of imitation, although the word has specialized uses ensuring that it is not a straightforward synonym. Mimesis is the enactment of the elements of a text as opposed to the imagination of them — in other words, the showing of things as opposed to the telling of things (diegesis). An actor performing a play engages the text mimetically, whereas a reader of a play engages it diegetically. See mimetic theory.
MIMETIC THEORY: Any theory stressing the artwork as an unmediated (see mediation) representation or close imitation of reality. Mimetic theory is challenged in the thinking of Michael Riffaterre (Semiotics of Poetry). In such a theory, the elements of the work are considered literal, since they purport to be in actuality what they appear to be. Any stress on figurative meaning is, therefore by definition, a shift from mimesis to semiosis. Contrast also expression theory.
MIMICRY: Occasionally used as a near synonym for any of camouflage, imitation, or simulation, all of which have slightly different senses.
MIND: See mind-body problem, self.
MIND-BODY PROBLEM: The traditional metaphysical problem of how the mind and body are related to one another, of what respective substances they are comprised, of how consciousness relates to matter, of how something incorporeal like consciousness can cause something physical like the body to perform an act, etc. Among the more important positions in the debate are the following: René Descartes argued that the mind and body were quite separate substances that somehow interacted with one another (see cartesian interactionism). Nicolas Malebranche disagreed, asserting that there was neither interaction nor causal relation between mind and body, only the divine intervention of God (see occasionalism). Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz asserted the theory of psychophysical parallelism, which is like occasionalism in its denial of interaction and causation, but which differs from it on theological grounds. Curt John Ducasse and other epiphenomenalists (see epiphenomenalism) described the mind as a by-product of sorts of the body’s physical processes. See also homo duplex.
MIND-SET: An inclination or disposition. In traditional art history, mind-sets are characterizations of the disposition towards art of a whole society defined usually by geographical or temporal parameters. For example, ancient Egyptian art is thought to be conceptual, whereas later nineteenth-century art is thought to be perceptual (see, however, perceptualism). The most frequently cited mind-sets are “emotive” (determined by the desire to express things passionately, leading to distortions of forms, as in German art from the Gothic Roettgen Pietà through Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece to early modern expressionism); “perceptual” (determined by the desire to transcribe natural appearance, as from Giovanni Bellini’s Esctacy of St. Francis to the photo-realism of the contemporary world), “rational” (particularly common in periods with classical tendencies, like ancient Greek art [see classic, classical]), and “ritualistic” (as in magico-religious art). All attempts to see art solely in terms of hypothetical mind-sets are bound to encounter data that will not fit the preconceived scheme. A case in point is the work of Antonio Pollaiuolo, whose sculptures depict the expenditure of energy of a sort that is more Baroque than Renaissance despite his life and death dates.
MINIMALISM: Under construction. In the meantime, try this.
MIRROR STAGE: Lacanian term denoting the point in a child’s development when the psychological experience of undifferentiated union with the mother is replaced with a conception of separated self. The experience of seeing oneself in a mirror, literally or figuratively, generates anxiety because one anticipates one will be homogeneous, a total being over which the ego has mastery. However, this totality is never achieved, so that one’s specular ego comes to feel inadequate. Put thusly into words, the process seems to take place over a period of time, but Lacan’s circuitous writing implies that it can always already have happened. A political application of the idea can be found under the heading ideology, and it has been used effectively in feminist and post-structuralist critiques. Notable examples of the former are Jane Gallop’s Reading Lacan and her essay on the erotics of engagement. Notable examples of the latter are Rosalind Krauss’s essays in L’Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism. See also psychoanalytical criticism.
MISE-EN-ABIME: Literally, “placement en abîme,” where “en abîme” itself refers to the habit of representing a small shield inside a larger one in traditional heralds and coats-of-arms. By extension, most any “story-within-a-story” situations can be called an example of mise-en-abîme. The device is especially common in modern literature, television and films, but it occasionally appears in art. Some of Velázquez’s bodegones show religious scene tucked into the background of a genre scene with very different kinds of activity (e.g., Old Woman Cooking Eggs).
MISE-EN-SCENE: In theatre and film, the stage setting, including all props, lighting effects, costumes, etc., but excluding the narrative proper. The mise-en-scène of David’s Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of His Dead Sons would thus include the antique costumes and furniture which determine the setting, the light falling on the women as opposed to the shadow enshrouding the father, the general disposition of the Doric columns both to provide rational spaces for the figures but also to separate the functions they serve within the narrative, etc. Mise-en-scène is especially critical in film studies, where it implies the orchestration of all the seen elements, with special reference to composition, visual weights, the function of the frame, and staged movements within the scene.
MISANDRY: Hatred of men. The antonym is misogyny.
MISOGYNY: Hatred of women. The antonym is misandry.
MISOLOGY: Hatred of reason. See anti-intellectualism.
MISPRISION: 1. Misunderstanding. 2. Violation of official duty by one in office. 3. Sedition or contempt, as in contempt of court. To some degree, these senses are all embodied in the use of “misprision” in contemporary literary discourse, which derives from Harold Bloom (see anxiety of influence). For further discussion, see misreading.
MISREADING: Harold Bloom (see anxiety of influence) suggests that because of indeterminacy we can never be entirely certain that a given reading of a text is the correct one. As a result, all readings are misreadings (or misprisions). He does allow, however, that some misreadings might be more compelling than others.
MIXED METAPHOR: A figure in which two metaphors are illogically or incongruously combined, often producing an unexpectedly humorous or grotesque effect, as in “Napoleon III hastened to put the ship of state back on its feet.” While mixed metaphors are easiest to recognize in their verbal form, they can be found in visual images, especially those which employ a richly metaphorical iconography from the outset, as in seventeenth century still-life painting or Surrealist images.
MOBILE: A usually spidery construction made of objects hung on vertical strings from various points on horizontal wire arms so that it is both balanced and capable of free movement. Alexander Calder is the most noted practitioner, although the term itsefl was coined by Marcel Duchamp in the early 1930s. Calder’s approach was to hang biomorphic abstractions like snippets from Joan Mirò paintings. Now anything can be found on a mobile, and their popularity for hanging over baby cribs has never declined.
MODELING: In two dimensional work, modeling is a means to create the effect of light on a virtual three-dimensional form by manipulating the values of light, shadow, and color. See also chiaroscuro, tenebrism. In three dimensional work, modeling refers to the additive method — i.e., building up a form by progressively shaping a malleable material like clay. (Making a sculpture by carving is a subtractive method and is therefore not routinely referred to as modeling.)
MODERNISM: Under construction. For the time being, see postmodernism.
MONOCULTURALISM: Occasionally used as an antonym of multiculturalism, i.e., the practice of making one’s own culture central and ignoring or oppressing all others. Typically, a Eurocentric person is thought to practice a type of monoculturalism. (Such an assertion conveniently ignores the multitudes of cultural sources that make up the “European” mindset, of course. See Cornel West’s “Diverse New World,” in Democratic Left [July 1991].) Note, however, that the terms are not interchangeable, for many ethnic, social or other groups practice monoculturalism.
MONTAGE: In film studies, the type of editing (usually associated with early Russian filmmakers like Eisentein, Kuleshov and Pudovkin) that creates a scene without any establishing shot or, indeed, any basis in a real space. Kuleshov’s famous example, perhaps apocryphal, was the impression of two people meeting in Washington by filming two actors in different Moscow locales and intercutting two other actors’ close up handshake, followed by concluding shot of the White House. Montage is effectively the opposite of découpage.
MORPHEME: A meaningful linguistic unit that contains no smaller meaningful parts. A morpheme may exist in a free state, as in the word “box,” or it may be bound to another unit, as the “es” of “boxes.” One of the problems of early visual semiotics was whether or not there were any true visual equivalents for morphemes. That problem was solved by a judicious reworking of principles of iconography, but the problem of syntax remained (see plane of content, plane of expression). More recently, the term coloreme has been suggested to denote a similarly basic unit for the visual. For another application, see grammatology.
MOVING EQUILIBRIUM: See hegemony.
MULTICULTURALISM: In Canada, where it is a formal governmental policy, multiculturalism means the appreciation, tolerance, understanding, and above all celebration of difference in cultural practices, ethnicity, language, religion, and the like. In the United States, the term is more likely to be encountered in discussions of university curricula and the political urge to dismantle the canon. For example, in “The Statement of the Black Faculty Caucus” (in Paul Berman’s Debating P.C.), professors Ted Gordon and Wahneema Lubiano offer the following operating definition: “Multiculturalism…is understood at its most simplistic to mean exposure to different cultures. Simple exposure, however, is absolutely meaningless without a reconsideration and restructuring of the ways in which knowledge is organized, disseminated, and used to support inequitable power differentials.” The antonym is monoculturalism.
MULTIDISCIPLINARY: More or less a synonym of interdisciplinary.
MULTILIMINAL: See liminality.
MULTIMODAL: Using more than one mode of critical, historical or other discourse.
MULTIPLE DRAFTS: A recent theory about the structure of consciousness, prmulgated by Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained.
MULTIPLE LOCATEDNESS: See inexhaustibility by contrast.
MUSEOLOGY: The study of the history, functions and classification of types of museums, as well as their roles in society, their systems for research, conservation, education and organization, and their relationships with their physical and social environments. (Submitted by Cristina Pimentel.)
MUSEUM: A non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits for the purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of man and his environment. (Submitted by Cristina Pimentel.)
MYOPIA: Nearsightedness. Art-for-art’s-sake had a specific historical moment — a finite lifespan and currency. So does everything else, including postmodernism and every traditional approach. Those who cannot “see” beyond their immediate moment suffer from myopia. As such, the term applies to parties on both sides of the political correctness debate.
MYSTICISM: Immanuel Kant (see Kantian) argued that because the mind begins with separate perceptions and not with things in themselves, we can never entirely understand either phenomena or the world. Similarly, our separate senses can never perceive God. However, Kant also maintained that the mind’s integrated intuitive faculties can transcend mere sensuous perceptions. The intuition can suspend these categories of the individual senses as separate unrelated entities and experience them all together as a single unified totality; and, in this manner, we can “know” the experience of God. The experience itself goes by many different names, including conversion, cosmic unity, ecstasy, enlightenment, epiphany, God, immanence, infinitude, numinousness, peak experience, presence, religious experience, revelation, Satori, spirituality, state of grace, the sublime, the transcendental, transformation, ultimate reality, the universal pool of consciousness, and so on. “Mysticism” is the generic term to describe various approaches to the generation of this type of intuition, which is unlike any other experience. Throughout history, religious mystics and artists alike have seldom spoken directly about the experience itself, which may be one of the reasons that mysticism is popularly associated with Romantic nebulousness and obscurity. Walter T. Stace, however, maintains that the mystical experience is not foggy, vague, sloppy, or misty (The Teachings of the Mystics [New York: New American, 1960]): p. 10.). (The similarity in the sound of the words “misty” and “mystical” has no relevance whatsoever.) Nor is the mystical experience related in any way to occult or parapsychological phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, hallucinations and visions. Some mystics did have visions, but they did not regard the visions themselves as mystical experiences. Saint Teresa of Avila, for instance, thought God sent some of them to encourage her to pursue mystical consciousness. But she believed the devil might have sent other visions “in order to confuse her and distract her from the true mystic quest” (Ibid., p. 11). Some believe that art is the most effective means of accomplishing this state of mind or spirit. Philosopher John Dewey’s Art as Experience has had a lasting effect on the view that critics and artists hold about the relationship between art and the aesthetic experience, which Dewey likened to confronting a divine presence. One frequently finds related concepts in artwriting. Bernard Berenson’s “ideated sensation,” Roger Fry’s “disinterested intensity of contemplation,” and Susanne Langer’s “symbolic form” are are among the nearly numberless phrases that have been used to describe the mystical (or transcendental) experience in art. Clive Bell often mentioned the aesthetic experience, and he too equates it with religion — as had those who wrote about aesthetics from Gautier to Wilde and Whistler: “The physical and material, for artists and mystics alike, served only as a ‘means to ecstasy’” (Beverly H. Twitchell, Cézanne and Formalism in Bloomsbury [Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987], p. 81). And artists are no exception: Joseph Stella, describing his experience of a painting in remarkably similar terms to those used by Dewey, said he “felt deeply moved, as if on the threshold of a new religion or in the presence of a new Divinity” (Quoted in Twentieth-Century Artists on Art, Dore Ashton, ed. [New York: Pantheon, 1985], p. 105). Kasimir Malevich claimed he saw the face of God in his black square (Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed? [New York: Thames, 1984], p. 21). There are innumerable other examples. (Submitted by Vance.)
MYSTIFICATION: The result of an attempt to bewilder rather than to clarify. Mystification can be either conscious or unconscious, although few would admit to it as the former. Mystification is often thought to be simply a matter of obscure vocabulary, like much of the terminology in this glossary. There can be little doubt that some artwriters have used mystification to situate themselves in what they think of as a more prestigious plane of intellectuality. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing offers a slightly different opinion: he sees mystification as “the process of explaining away what otherwise might be evident,” a process he finds particularly common in formalism and other critical approaches which downplay the social formation. He gives as an example this passage from Seymour Slive’s monograph Franz Hals: “Hals’s unwavering commitment [is] to his personal vision, which enriches our consciousness of our fellow men and heightens our awe for the ever-increasing power of the mighty impulses that enabled him to give a close view of life’s vital forces.” What such a passage leaves out is any sense of historical specificity, creating the illusion of timelessness.
MYSTORY: In Ulmer’s teletheory, a method of teaching that acknowledges subjectivity and a postmodernist distrust of authority and metanarratives.
MYTH: In addition to the usual connotations of fable, folklore, legends, superstitions, etc., “myth” has taken on several implications in postmodern thought. For example, in the work of Roland Barthes (see Barthesian), myth is the result of ideology’s dehistoricizing of cultural phenomena, of lifting them out of their historical specificity, as in timelessness. All forms of culture, both the putatively high and low, are subject to a process which disguises the ideological character of the phenomena so that they appear natural and commonsensical. The meanings of these phenomena are precisely not natural, however, for they are imposed by particular sectors of the population who maintain power by duping disempowered sectors into thinking that the meanings are universal. Innumerable examples could be cited, but arguably the most basic one in artwriting is the canon of masterpieces, which in this view is little more than a celebration of empowered patrons of the past for their taste and economic success. The unraveling of this state of affairs is intervention. See Barthes’ Mythologies (1972).
MYTHEME: Term used occasionally in a structuralist context. Levi-Strauss used the word “mytheme” to indicate the smallest unit of myth (by analogy to the phoneme being the smallest unit of speech that can distinguish one statement from another statement, like the “d” versus the “b” in dog/bog). It’s a faulty but useful analogy. It’s faulty because a phoneme is itself meaningless, whereas a mytheme (understood as a sort of primary element of the mythic story) can be an event, for example, which is not meaningless in itself. It’s useful because once the mythemes are identified, they can be aligned with other mythemes in particular kinds of arrangements (to other mythemes in time [diachronic] or to other mythemes in the same myth [synchronic], and so on). These arrangements are structures, hence the term “structuralism” to describe the overall process. Isolating the structures can reveal interesting things that have to do with many things from sociology to psychology. Levi-Strauss’s famous article on the matter is “The Structural Study of Myth,” in Structural Anthropology, translated by C. Jacobson and B. Schoepf (Doubleday, 1967). The notion is now a little bit dated because there is a potentially much more wide-reaching theory just beginning to be discussed that swallows the idea whole. It is, however, so new as to be very controversial. I am referring to memetics, the study of memes (the smallest unit of something that can be replicated by imitation), which by definition includes all mythemes within its theoretical orbit. A good general introduction to memes is Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, but it has virtually nothing to say about art. That methodological appropriation has yet to happen.
MYTHIC CRITICISM: Criticism which chooses to search for a text’s formative influences and constitutive elements in the realm of myth.
MYTHOPOEIA: A deliberate creation of myth by aping archetypes and other folkloric characteristics (see folklore). It can be found in the work of many artists of a generically Romantic sensibility, ranging from William Blake’s rewriting of the Old Testament to Leonora Carrington’s Jungian-inspired depictions of a prelapsarian world. Mythopoeia is considered a characteristic of self-conscious (read: Western) cultures and is therefore almost invariably Eurocentric.
manualized therapy - A therapy is one that has been systematized and written down into a manual. Each therapy session is thereby standardized in its procedures and sequences and has a consistent look and feel no matter who implements it or who the client is.
marginalize - to leave out of the center of the text and (metaphorically) to put in the margin. Minority voices are often marginalized in this way. But the term can also be used more broadly to include the voices of people who are to shy or insecure to bring their concerns to center stage. Often this term is used in the phrase marginalized voices. return
meta-narrative - Lyotard’s term. It means a story or narrative that is presumed to have great generality and represents a final and apodictic truth. Modernists, Lyotard tells us, believe in metanarratives whereas postmoderns are incredulous of metanarratives. Postmoderns, in this sense of the term, are eclectic and gather their beliefs from a variety of sources while treating the resulting compilation as tentative. return
metaphysics of presence - the belief that the thoughts we have in the present are more real than the thoughts that we read that were written elsewhere and in the past. The metaphysics of presence tells us that if I have this thought and write it down, it is forever mine. return
mftc-l - mftc is a listserv. The pmth listserv was initiated late in 1998 when a schism occurred on the mftc list. The causes of that schism are complex, but pmth became a list for more scholarly and philosophical discussion while many members continued on both lists. return
modern - Also called “modernist.” In the context of a postmodern vocabulary, the “modern” does not mean “contemporary.” In fact, the “modern” or “modernism” is seen as out-of-date. The “modern” is understood to have emerged during the 18th century Enlightenmentwhen philosphers were challenging superstitions (which often included religion) of premodern beliefs. They replaced faith in superstition with faith that science and objectivity could build us a better world. Moderns prefer objective and factual language. “Modern” therapies (as postmoderns use the term) are therapies that pretend to be scientific when they are not by using scientific sounding terms are methods. return
NAME-OF-THE-FATHER: English translation of the Lacanian expression nom-du-père, by which Lacan meant any allusion to the father as he appears in the Symbolic realm. Whereas the Real father is simply a biological entity and the Imaginary father is the paternal imago (the idealized image of the father, with ramifications ranging from the anxiety of influence to castration), the symbolic father is the psychological principle of father as authority or Law, something to which the subject binds himself. In contrast, some feminist writers have trangressed (see transgression) the Law of the father — i.e., structures of thought usually associated with patriarchal society, like disinterestedness and rationalism — in order to create alternatives like l’ écriture féminine, equally within the symbolic but of a wholly different order.
NARRATION: One of the four classic types of written composition, the others being argumentation (compare argument), description and exposition. The function of narration is to deliver a narrative, although it may also include descriptive or other elements that are not narrative proper. In a simplistic distinction, the narrative is comprised of the events of a story, whereas the narration consists of the way(s) in which the story is presented, ranging from the implied author’s tone to such things as the actual order of events.
NARRATIVE: A story of events and experiences. See narration, narrative analysis, narrativity, narratology, narrator. Note that the phrase “master narrative” (see metanarrative) has very different connotations. See also J. Hillis Miller’s essay “Narrative,” in F. Lentricchia and T. McLaughlin, eds., Critical Terms for Literary Study. See also Jim Walker’s Visual-Narrative Lexicon.
NARRATIVE ANALYSIS: Critical writing aimed at narrative and/or narration. It has become fashionable to apply the principles of narrative analysis to visual images. A case in point is the dialogic (see dialogism) narrative analysis of William Holman Hunt’s Awakening Conscience in Karl Kroeber’s Retelling/Rereading: The Fate of Storytelling in Modern Times: Kroeber maintains that the work’s overly insistent narrativity, manifest in the abundance of symbolic details, prevents the audience from sharing in the apparent production of meaning, reducing the image to a non-interactive product, which he calls a “pseudo-story.” Although the symbolic details must also function in the domain of description, which is not narrative per se, the isomorphism between every detail and the meaning of the whole image deadens the possibility of dialogism. In other words, if absolutely everything has a meaning, nothing is contingent (see contingency) enough to allow the audience to have a role in the production of meaning. See also dramatism.
NATURE: Supposedly the opposite of culture — i.e., the world and all its phenomena as they exist without human intervention. However, since the boundaries of “human intervention” have changed over the centuries, recent writers suggest that “nature” itself is a cultural construct.
NEGATIVE THEOLOGY: In his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argued that the traditional artworld was essentially ritualistic and functioned by distancing society at large from works of art by emphasizing their ostensible uniqueness and aura. Benjamin saw the advent of photomechanical reproduction as coincident with the rise of socialism, leading to a more democratic consumption of imagery (cf cultural democracy). This presumably threatened the artworld elite, who responded by proclaiming the existence of a “pure” art which had no social function and no categorizable content. This was the famous nineteenth century doctrine of art for art’s sake. Benjamin characterized this move as a deliberate act of cultural mystification, which he further described as a “negative theology” — that is, as a kind of ritual fantasy (i.e., a theology) determined by what the object is not, rather than what it is. He maintained that this was a doomed project: with the widespread use of technology, “aura” would evaporate and, instead of ritual, art would be based on politics.
NEW NEW CRITICISM: Term sometimes employed to indicate deconstruction and to characterize it simply as a fashionable alternative to new criticism, which was itself once a fashionable alternative to something else.
NEW HISTORICISM: Where the older historicisms tended to emphasize broader patterns of historical change, the new historicism places greater stress on economic, ideological, political, and social phenomena in the interpretation of culture. The phrase is closely associated with Stephen Greenblatt, whose essay “Culture” (in F. Lentricchia and T. McLaughlin, eds., Critical Terms for Literary Study) outlines the principles involved. Much new artwriting, particularly that of a Marxist inclination (see Marxism), exemplifies the new historicism.
NEW MASCULINITY: A growing discourse which treats patriarchy as the social and institutional oppression of both women and men. Like feminism, the new masculinity is a heterogeneous field. It ranges from pop-psychological, ritual drumming inspired by Robert Bly’s mythopoeic Iron John (see mythopoeia) to more sober sociological studies like Robert W. Connell’s Gender and Power, cultural analyses like Kaja Silverman’s Male Subjectivity at the Margins, and popular books like Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power. Connell was one of the first writers to use the term “hegemonic masculinity,” by which he meant a “stylized and impoverished” form of masculinity “constructed in relation to various subordinated masculinities [for example, gay men] as well as in relation to women.” In other words, patriarchy requires that men must submit to the roles defined for them, just as women must. While this oppression is most marked in men who do not fit the mold because of appearance, effeminacy, lifestyle, and the like, it affects all men in varying degrees. The new masculinity generally holds that feminism’s various forms are all worthwhile critiques of this state of affairs, but it insists that women are not the only oppressed group nor even necessarily the most oppressed group. For example, it is often said that the patriarchal medical establishment pays insufficient attention to women’s medical concerns. Warren Farrell questions this idea, noting that the difference in life expectancy has increased in women’s favour over the years. For example, men lived one year on average less than women in 1920, and now they live seven years less. Among the reasons: U.S. medical funding on women’s issues constitutes ten percent of the research budget, whereas men’s issues receive five percent; twenty-three articles on women’s health are published for every one on men’s health; breast cancer research funding is 660 percent greater than prostate cancer research, although women’s likelihood of dying from breast cancer exceeds men’s likelihood of dying from prostate cancer by a much lower fourteen percent; and so on. It is important to note, however, that this is not a competition but a call for a more equal distribution of resources. It is also important to note that the new masculinity is usually much more disciplined and statistically responsible than the simple nay-saying of those who use words like femi-nazi.The new masculinity is just beginning to enter artwriting, although there are many artists whose work is susceptible to such approaches, including Andy Fabo, Micah Lexier, and Kim Moody. Sympathetic discussions of the difficulties experienced by contemporary gay artists are almost new masculinity by default. See also bi-sexism, victimarchy.
NOISE: 1. In information theory, any sort of interference between the sender of a message and its receiver. 2. In informal logic, any material not relevant to the matter under investigation. 3. In the work of some sociologically inclined writers, an intervention or challenge to a dominant symbolic order (as in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture ).
NOVELTY: Conventionally, a state of newness and/or the essentially transitory amusement value of something which is novel. Since much of what historically has constituted the avant-garde has depended upon novelty — bear in mind the modernist admonition “it’s been done before” — might it be legitimate to assert that one of the unexplored ramifications of avant-gardism is a certain recreational triviality? See also innovation.