Exit If You Can: The Resistance Art of Nelbia Romero

Archives, Performance, and Resistance in Uruguayan Art Under Dictatorship

by Andrea Giunta

The essay begins:

Between October and November of 1983, the installation Sal-si-puedes (Exit if you can) by artist Nelbia Romero, was shown at the Galería del Notariado in Montevideo. At one point in the pathway through the gallery space, broken mannequins lay splattered in red paint. This image visually replicated what everyday reality condensed into a complex amalgam of experiences that had slowly been accumulating from the time of the coup d’état on June 27, 1973, and throughout the years of the Uruguayan civil-military dictatorship from then until 1985. This coup was no spectacular, sudden, and violent experience like the one a few months later in Chile, with the bombing of the Moneda Palace, soccer stadiums filled with prisoners, and the detentions and urban murders. In the Uruguayan case it was a pact or form of defection of the democratic powers that resulted in the establishment of a military system whose repressive forms were consolidated through the prison system, torture, death, disappearances, censorship, and exile; mechanisms that gradually accumulated and increased.

 

Carlos Etchegoyen, performance photograph projected in Sal-si-puedes

Carlos Etchegoyen, performance photograph projected in Sal-si-puedes

Romero’s Sal-si-puedes made reference to Salsipuedes, the historical name of the encounter that took place in 1831 between the then recently established military forces of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay and the indigenous groups of the area. The name Sal-si-puedes does the work of literalizing the idea of entrapment and confinement that resulted in the massacre that in turn consolidated the extermination of indigenous people in Uruguay. Romero’s installation consisted of a series of expressions in several different media. Various objects were organized in a walkthrough; a musical score was composed especially for the piece; photographs of a dance performance about the different episodes of the violent encounter were used as the basis for a projection of slides inside the installation; and a small folder of quotes from historical documents was made available to installation viewers. Along with its complex materiality, which required the spectator to reconstruct meaning from a diversity of sonic, visual, and written archives, as well as from an experience of her own body, the theme of the installation—as well as the moment in which it was created—is relevant. Sal-si-puedes took up a violent episode that was constitutive of the state’s formation, actualized under the conditions of censorship and violence imposed by the dictatorship.

The installation combined a series of social, political, and aesthetic plots. On the one hand, it proposed a reading of a past massacre in a contemporary repressive context. On the other hand, it aimed to stage the subjectivities conditioned by the climate of censorship through a complex, interdisciplinary web. The reception and interpretation of the piece must therefore be understood in the repressive context of the dictatorship. Testimonies from Romero’s contemporaries evidence a use of opaque and complicit codes, means of expression that remain inconspicuous to the castrating gaze of the dictatorship and allow us to imagine microsocieties of meaning and dialogue from which reading communities were formed. I think of these collectives as part of the intellectual and artistic networks that sought to articulate dissident messages and activities in relation to repressive state control during the years of the dictatorship. In addition to these networks and messages, in this essay, I’m also interested in addressing the historicist effect of Romero’s installation, into which archival documents were incorporated as a way of bringing unresolved aspects of the past into the present. In no way, of course, do I intend to resolve them, but I aim, precisely, to point out their latency and unrest. Taken together, the disparate parts of Sal-si-puedes is a package of experiences that appeals at the same time to the body and to the different senses with which the documents of the past are interwoven in contemporary thought and experience. Continue reading …

This essay analyzes the 1983 installation Sal-si-puedes by Uruguayan artist Nelbia Romero, and its status as an act of resistance, in light of the dictatorship then in power in her country.

IntroOnlineFig1ANDREA GIUNTA is an art historian, curator, and writer specializing in Latin American art and modern and contemporary art from the post-WWII era to the present. She received her PhD from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she is currently Professor of Latin American Art. She is Principal Researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council.

Dance as a Poetics of Problems

A Parallel Slalom from BADco: In Search of a Poetics of Problems

by Bojana Cvejić

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The essay begins:

This text is written with a double mission. By observing choreographic and dramaturgical ideas and methods in the performances of the Croatian collective BADco, I want to revive the importance of poetics in light of the predominance of practice in today’s discourse on art. BADco is a performance collective based in Zagreb (founded in 2000), and its artistic core comprises three dancer-choreographers, two dramaturges, and a philosopher: Ivana Ivković, Ana Kreitmeyer, Tomislav Medak, Goran Sergej Pristaš, Nikolina Pristaš, and Zrinka Užbinec. As the dramaturge Goran Sergej Pristaš has argued, today we are witness to a transformation of artistic work into praxis, whereby artistic labor is extended, atomized, and dispersed in a variety of activities in which the artist manifests his/her will. These purportedly free, yet commodified activities are often presented under the paradigm of art as research and education: as lectures, workshops, encounters, methodological exchanges, residencies, and so on. These occur in a familiar rhythm of fragmentation that subsumes life under work, that is, within the all-encompassing term artistic praxis. In such a regime of production little time is left for the artist actually to engage with his/her art, Pristaš concludes. In his brief statement “Praise of Laziness” (1993), the Croatian conceptualist Mladen Stilinović suggests that to engage in art making the artist must endorse (and perfect) laziness, in an emphatic annihilation of capitalist production and the institutional market. Laziness emerges as a poetics for Stilinović (and for Kazimir Malevich and Marcel Duchamp, both of whom he draws upon), or as a condition for poetics, understood as an engagement with the principles of production (poiesis).

According to Aristotle, poiesis is one of the three categories of human activity. It is poietikai technai that designates the art of making, forming, and composing, or production, in contrast to, on the one hand, praktikai technai, which refers to activity without an end or product, carried out for effect in public, hence, a performing art or an instantiation of the political life of citizens. On the other hand, poetics is also distinguished from teoretikai technai, which signifies investigation, or theory as opposed to practice. However, this distinction can barely hold any longer, as the term “practice” has broadened to such an extent that it incorporates both poetics and theory. Moreover, the discourse on artistic practice has cannibalized poetics, emptying it of thought concerning what the product of artistic activity is, what it means, and how its principles might become instruments for looking past art into society.

In order to explain what this double (artistic and political) articulation of poetics entails, as well as to situate the geocultural context in which BADco’s work arises, I will briefly introduce a book I co-edited with Goran Sergej Pristaš entitled Parallel Slalom: A Lexicon of Non-Aligned Poetics. The volume features essays on notions of poetics devised by Yugoslav artists and cultural workers—ideas and working principles that exceed the autonomy of art by also pointing to the political unconscious of a society (that of the former Yugoslavia, now under EU capitalist democracy, and then under socialism). One example would be Stilinović’s “laziness,” mentioned earlier; others would include the concept of “delay,” or the misrecognition, from the viewpoint of the Western-centered conception of modernity, of art in Eastern Europe or the concept of “radical amateurism,” which describes the artistic practice of taking the stance of the amateur who dares to ask disturbing, nonprofessional questions.

Two attributes characterize this kind of thought: parallelism and nonalignment. The latter refers to the nonaligned movement of states that were not formally aligned with either of the two major power blocs during the Cold War. Nonalignment suggests that neither the discourses of art in the grip of the Soviet socialist regime nor the postcolonialism of the West and its academic variants can adequately account for experimental performance practices in former Yugoslavia. While much of the experimentation was probed in writing—forming, since the year 2000, a regional (post-Yugoslav) platform of performing arts magazines such as Maska, Frakcija, and TkH/Walking Theory—the artists’ pages that were supposed to present performance artists from the Yugoslav context remained “empty.” Due to a lack of infrastructure for producing performances, artists and theorists were more often able to “rehearse thought” than to maintain a performance praxis, a fact evidenced in the export of Eastern European theorists and dramaturges into the Western context. Additionally, the spirit of collectivity and self-organization in life and artistic production within the independent scenes of Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, and Skopje, made the identification of experimental practice difficult or irrelevant. In the Yugoslav cultural legacy authorship isn’t branded as personal cultic expression or assigned clearly to one discipline, medium, or genre. BADco’s practice as a self-organized collective, a “nameless association of authors” (the acronym “BAD” in BADco stands for “bezimeno autorsko društvo” in Croatian) entails the rotation of responsible roles for each single work according to the varying wishes and concerns of the participating artists, roles that then transform in the course of the working process, rather than following established competencies of the individuals involved.

Now, returning to parallelism, calling poetics as a kind of thought a “parallel slalom” is to use the metaphor of a sloping ride, indeed, of a downhill ski race, which underlines the swift parallel connections between artists’ conceptual imagination and their critical insights into history and its political unconscious. The registers of poetics, politics, and philosophy here run parallel and sometimes get short-circuited among the notions of this lexicon. Parallelism also implies a kind of thought that arises from within, or close to, artistic practice in its productive rather than interpretive aspect. While today most art schools in Europe foster a procedural knowledge of art making, the poetical concepts in parallel slalom emphasize learning how to look through and from art rather than how to create it. Perhaps thinking of the political usefulness of art as a set of critical tools is a reflex from previous socialist times. Parallelism also accounts for the aesthetic similarity between Eastern and Western European performance practices, which has contributed to the perception of the Eastern as a déjà vu, as old-fashioned in the Western gaze, causing some misunderstanding and disenchantment in the West in the 1990s. Boris Groys has explained that the misrecognition of Eastern “non-art” by critics in the West, who failed to recognize it as art, reveals the difference in the use of art, not in aesthetic categories of form and style.

This difference in the aesthetic function of art is what we are going to observe in BADco’s choreographic poetics. Continue reading …

This text explores choreographic and dramaturgical ideas and methods in the performances of the Croatian collective BADco. It illuminates them within a distinctive poetics of performance—“non-aligned” with either Western or Eastern European cultural legacies—as a kind of thought that produces art, while it also looks past art into society.

BOJANA CVEJIĆ is a performance and dance scholar, a philosopher, and a performance maker. She is the author of several books, most recently Choreographing Problems: Expressive Concepts in European Contemporary Dance and Performance (Palgrave, 2015) and Public Sphere by Performance cowritten with Ana Vujanović (b_books, 2015, second edition).

Laqueur’s ‘The Work of the Dead’ wins two prizes

Representations editor Thomas Laqueur wins AHA’s Mosse Prize & McGill’s Cundill Prize for The Work of the Dead

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Thomas W. Laqueur, Helen Fawcett Professor of History at UC Berkeley, has been selected as the winner of the George L. Mosse Prize by the American Historical Association and the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature by McGill University. Both honors are in recognition of Laqueur’s book The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton University Press, 2015).

Calling him a “modern Charon,” the Mosse Prize committee noted:

Laqueur’s haunting book brilliantly tackles a fundamental historical question: how humanity relates to the dead. His magisterial account establishes that throughout the premodern and modern periods, the world has never been disenchanted; the dead have always had agency in defining what it means to be human.

Laqueur will be awarded the Mosse Prize at the AHA’s 131st Annual Meeting in Denver, Jan. 5-8, 2017. In winning the Cundill Prize, Laqueur also receved an award of $75,000.

More on the Berkeley News blog

“Time Zones” Launch Event

MINDING TIME: HOLIDAY CELEBRATION OF TIME ZONES

A UC Berkeley Arts Research Center Upcoming Event

You’re Invited! Sunday, December 4, 2016
3:00pm to 6:30pm

3pm: Tour of Mind over Matter Exhibition
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Galleries 

4:00-5:30pm: Celebrating Time Zones
Dwinelle Annex, Room 126, UC Berkeley campus

5:30pm: West Coast Preview of In Terms of Performance Website
and Holiday Reception
Dwinelle Annex, Room 126, UC Berkeley campus

Join a time-based (and time-sensitive) tour of Mind over Matter at the Berkeley Art Museum with curator Constance Lewallen.

Converse with Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson about their special issue of Representations, “Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts,” including substantive essays on contemporary Croatian dance practice, Uruguayan art under dictatorship, the work of the Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica, and the visual and sound arts of China, along with reflections on durational art by Berkeley faculty, including Natalia Brizuela, Jeffrey Skoller, Suzanne Guerlac, Winnie Wong, and more.

Engage with the Arts Research Center’s new online anthology of keywords in contemporary art and performance, In Terms of Performance, coproduced with Paula Marincola and the Pew Center for Art & Heritage, with contributions from a range of Bay Area artists, critics, and curators such as Rudolf Frieling, Paul Dresher, Judith Butler, and Claudia La Rocca.

Launch the holiday season with a celebration of the Arts Research Center as a think tank for the arts, at Berkeley and beyond. See the full afternoon program here.

Indirect Discourse–Today!

What Does Free Indirect Discourse Mean Now?

a roundtable discussion

220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 29
5:00 PM

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Roundtable participants are UCB faculty Robert Alter (Near Eastern Studies and Comparative Literature), Dorothy Hale (English), David Marno (English), Alan Tansman (East Asian Languages and Culture), and Dora Zhang (Comparative Literature and English). Moderator: Victoria Kahn (Comparative Literature and English).

Alan Tansman is a member and former co-chair of the Representations editorial board. In addition to contributing several essays to the journal, Victoria Kahn has also edited two special issues for us: Early Modern Secularism (Winter 2009, no. 105) and Mimesis East and West (Spring 2006, no. 94). Dora Zhang‘s “A Lens for an Eye: Photography and Proust” was published in Representations 118 (Spring 2012).

New Special Issue on Time-Based Art

TIME ZONES: DURATIONAL ART AND ITS CONTEXTS

edited by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson

Number 136, Fall 2016 (read on Highwire)

Now available

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SHANNON JACKSON and JULIA BRYAN-WILSON   Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts (the issue introduction; free access for a limited time)   ·   BOJANA CVEJIĆ          A Parallel Slalom from BADco: In Search of a Poetics of Problems   ·   ANDREA GIUNTA   Archives, Performance, and Resistance in Uruguayan Art Under Dictatorship   ·   GU Yi  The “Peasant Problem” and Time in Contemporary Chinese Art   ·   ANDRÉ LEPECKI    The Non-Time of Lived Experience: The Problem of Color in Hélio Oiticica’s Early Works   ·   REBECCA SCHNEIDER   What Happened; or, Finishing Live   ·   WANG JING   Affective Listening as a Mode of Coexistence: The Case of China’s Sound Practice

PlusReflections on durational art from Weihong Bao, Natalia Brizuela, Allan deSouza, Suzanne Guerlac, SanSan Kwan, Anneka Lenssen, Angela Marino, Jeffrey Skoller, and Winnie Wong

Do we have a problem with time?

Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts

by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson

This introduction to the Time Zones special issue begins:

Do we have a problem with time? The we here is specific—it means not only the scholars, curators, and practitioners who think critically about twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic production and its relationship to temporality but also the small collective of the two of us who are writing this introduction together. We are a performance studies scholar and an art historian who have been thinking together about what makes questions about time so persistent, and so vexed, within and between our two fields. Duration, we have come to realize, might be the conceptual connective tissue that links these two increasingly overlapping disciplines. But “durational art” is only one of the many names that have proliferated in an attempt to bound an unboundable set of practices that frequently violate the borders of medium-specificity as they move from so-called “static” configurations into durational forms: time-based art, live art, hybrid art, intermedial art.

What happens when the same phrases—“durational art” or “time-based art”—traffic back and forth between the traditional visual arts (painting, sculpture) and the performing arts, especially when, in the performance-based disciplines, time or liveness hardly feels “new”? While the history of twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic experimentation is one of ever more blurry disciplinary borders, we often find that the habits and divisions of labor within different art institutions persist. Moreover, the training of artists and of critics separates skills and evaluative barometers within different art fields. Many kinds of cultural producers may be making, curating, and evaluating “live” art work, but our sense of what kind of work it is will be different depending upon its context, whether it is housed in a museum or a theater, or whether it is analyzed by a dance critic, a film critic, or a critic of visual arts.

Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts brings together six substantial essays (by Bojana Cvejić, Andrea Giunta, Yi Gu, André Lepecki, Rebecca Schneider, and Wang Jing) and nine shorter reflections (by Weihong Bao, Natalia Brizuela, Allan deSouza, Suzanne Guerlac, SanSan Kwan, Anneka Lenssen, Jeffrey Skoller, and Winnie Wong) that approach time, duration, and liveness from an array of disciplinary and regional contexts. From the affective registers of contemporary sound art in China to the politics of labor and laziness in a collaborative performance collective in Zagreb to archive-based interventions during the Uruguay military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, the essays plumb the specificities of practices as they unfold in real times and physical spaces. Contributors consider how the presumed presentism of “live art” puts pressure on the demands of historicity, as well as how it reconfigures relations to art’s viewers or witnesses. The essays and reflections examine how notions of time and duration have emerged as central, yet contested, in diverse projects that include public art, kinetic body-based sculpture, dance, and photography.

Together these texts make an argument, which is that the contexts that frame durational art—whether rhetorical, or national, or institutional—matter a great deal. Where and when does a piece take place? In what kind of site is it situated, and in what moment of time does it occur? What are the conditions of its inception and its continued circulation? Who is in the audience, and who talks about it after the fact? Is it applauded, or is it censored? These experiments with time respond to the local economic politics of particular regions as well as to transnational circuits of exchange. Questions of time in art interact with larger questions of migration, capitalism, and mobility in a global world. The ephemeral quality of time-based art can address and elude the political urgencies of volatile sites. Regionally specific themes and political issues prompt artists to collaborate across disciplines in some contexts but dissuade them in others. Funding models in different regions of the world both support and limit the capacity of artists to work across disciplines. Time-based art can in some cases disrupt and in others activate the demands of a market-based art calendar packed with biennials and high-profile festivals. It both challenges and enables the consumptive models of a globalized art world. Continue reading (free access for a limited time) …

Exploring the emergence of the rubric “time-based art” across several disciplinary formations, including performance and visual art, this editors’ introduction outlines some historical theories of duration across the arts and argues for a contextual approach that accounts for both medium and institutional location.

SHANNON JACKSON is Hadidi Chair in the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is Professor of Rhetoric and of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, as well as Director of the Arts Research Center. Other publications include The Builders Association (2015), Social Works (2011), Professing Performance (2004), and the forthcoming online anthology of keywords, In Terms of Performance, co-edited with Paula Marincola and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

JULIA BRYAN-WILSON is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (2009), Art in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing (2016), and Fray: Art and Textile Politics, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

No Problem?

No Problem

by Michael Fried

This essay, from the special issue “Description Across Disciplines,” is a reflection on the supposed difficulties of “description” in the writing of art history and art criticism. It begins:

Let me hoist up an epigraph, which I mean to wave brightly over everything I shall go on to say, from Ludwig Wittgenstein (no surprise, to anyone familiar with my writing): “The light shed by work is a beautiful light, but it only shines with real beauty if it is illuminated by yet another light.” Let me repeat it, the thought is so foreign to our usual assumptions: “The light shed by work is a beautiful light, but it only shines with real beauty if it is illuminated by yet another light.” I will proceed by making several somewhat general points, which I will try to back up with examples mainly from my own work.

The first point is this: I stand strongly opposed to the idea that there is some special problem—some problem of a theoretical or systematic nature—involved in describing works of (so-called) visual art. This means, to cite a famous text, that I find myself in disagreement with the views put forward in Michael Baxandall’s well-known essay “The Language of Art History” (1991), where he raises a number of problems of a general nature, the most important of which is the lack of fit, as he understands it, between the “linearity” of language and the non-“linearity” of pictures. In contrast to language, he writes, “a picture . . . or rather our perception of it, has no such inherent progression to withstand the sequence of language applied to it” (notice the metaphorics of this: “to withstand”—as if some kind of struggle is going on, with language as the aggressor; “the sequence of language applied to it”—as if slapped or thrust onto the picture’s surface; no suggestion here that a picture might welcome the right language, as if having waited for it nearly forever: think of my epigraph). Baxandall continues in the same vein: “An extended description of a painting is committed by the structure of language to be a progressive violation of the pattern of perceiving a painting. We do not see linearly. We perceive a picture by a temporal sequence of scanning, but within the first second or so of this scanning we have an impression of the whole—that it is a Mother and Child sitting in a hall, say, or a sort of geometricized guitar on a table” (459–60). We then observe greater and greater detail, including relationships among elements, but whatever our progress of seeing and noticing is like, “It is not comparable in regularity and control with progress through a piece of language” (460). Superior art writers (he mentions Giorgio Vasari and Charles Baudelaire) find ways to deal with this mismatch, Baxandall concedes. But in his view there remains a basic disparity between the circumstances of the literary critic on the one hand and an art historian or art critic on the other, for the simple reason that a literary text and our reception of it “have a robust syntagmatic progression of their own which the linear sequence of an exposition cannot harm” (460). Again, the imagery is that of a struggle, in which sequences of words seek to impose themselves damagingly on—more strongly, to violate—an artifact that by virtue of its inherent nature does its best to resist them. Indeed, Baxandall refers in these pages to “the basic absurdity of verbalizing about pictures” (461), as if the very project of seeking to do so were somehow under a cloud. (I find this a bit too British-commonsensical; why should verbalizing about pictures be thought of as more absurd than verbalizing about human relationships or, indeed, any other serious topic?) Continue reading …

MICHAEL FRIEDFried_2014 is J. R. Herbert Boone Emeritus Professor of Humanities and the History of Art at the Johns Hopkins University.  A new book of poems, Promesse du Bonheur,  with photographs by James Welling, has just been published by David Zwirner Books.

Description Across Disciplines Event

Description Across Disciplines

Tuesday, November 15, 5 pm
D37 Hearst Field Annex
University of California, Berkeleydescription-across-disciplines2

A symposium extending the ideas presented in the Representations special issue “Description Across Disciplines.”

Featuring speakers Mark Greif (founding editor n + 1, The New School), Mary Ann Smart (UC Berkeley), Georgina Kleege (UC Berkeley), Sharon Marcus (Columbia University), Heather Love (University of Pennsylvania), and Stephen Best (UC Berkeley).

Read the introduction to the special issue, “Building a Better Description,” here.

Sponsored by Representations, the Townsend Center for the Humanities, and the Florence Green Bixby Chair in English, UC Berkeley.

Description and Redescription in the Milgram Experiments

Description in the Psychological Sciences

by Jill Morawski

The essay begins:

Whether our work attends to material objects, texts, behavior, or logic, at one point or another we undertake description. Yet such description practices often proceed without reflection or analysis. In my own discipline, psychology, researchers describe behaviors, experimental protocols, data analysis, and results, although they do so with scarce guidance beyond what is offered in a style manual. In recent articles, Heather Love, Stephen Best, and Sharon Marcus have argued against “suspicious interpretation” and advocated practices that seem to reproduce precisely the kind of transparent description that psychology has long taken for granted. Best and Marcus, for example, characterize the contributors to a special issue of Representations, “The Way We Read Now,” as “relatively neutral about their objects of study, which they tend less to evaluate than to describe, and which they situate in landscapes neither utopian nor dystopian.” As David Coombs has observed, such turns to descriptive criticism in literary studies suggest a disciplinary future “in which English has grown much closer to the sciences” by embracing value neutrality and objectivity as epistemic virtues. These moves toward description and away from interpretation and critique might be beneficial to literary studies, but what, if any, are the benefits to the sciences? Prior to this question stands another: what constitutes description in the sciences?

These questions guide this essay, which considers them in terms of one particular science, experimental psychology. Even at the start, there are some ready answers to the first question. Description is and has been crucial to psychology’s empirical practices, yet this aspect of scientific work apparently is so established and routinized that researchers rarely elucidate their methods or demonstrate the kind of “attentiveness” to the details of the observational events that is more regularly valued in the humanities. Under these circumstances, a focus on the practices and epistemology of description could provide guidance by which experimenters might refine, enrich, and possibly extend their description practices. Benefits could accrue also to a related aspect of modern experimental psychology, the quantification ideal, for the rise and triumph of quantification (taking numbers as accurate and sufficient descriptions of psychological events) risks substituting the “truth” of numbers for reports of what is actually happening. Description studies thus have the potential to inform research psychologists’ pervasive translation of psychological phenomena into numerics. Further, although scientific psychology depends on the description of observable events, its technical practices often involve dense inferential reasoning—that is, interpretation. Insofar as literary criticism regularly attends to interpretive practices, psychologists can take heed and consider how literary analyses might guide them toward better ways of interrogating their own scientific habits of inferential reasoning.

At the outset, it is important to recognize some distinctive features of the production and uses of scientific knowledge that are fundamental to psychology’s description practices. Chief among these features are the ideal of reductionism; elaborate techniques and technologies that are deemed requisite to observation, calibration, and the description of objects in the world; the preeminence of quantification over all other forms of description; and valences of material power, social and physical, that differ significantly from the humanities’ powers in effect if not in kind. Historian Theodore (Ted) Porter has analyzed these dimensions of science and isolated two different kinds of description. The first section of the essay reviews his taxonomy of science’s thin and thick description and uses it to outline the forms and contours of description in the psychological sciences, while at the same time acknowledging variations across this heterogeneous field. Porter’s analysis is especially useful in highlighting the scientific descriptions that are disseminated for general use and showing the social and material power realized through them. These “thin” descriptions, as Porter names them, figure centrally in scientific psychology, a science founded in the late nineteenth century with an explicit goal of improving the human condition. This aspirational goal has been sustained for more than a century and is exemplified in the now iconic slogan “giving psychology away” (in the sense of making it available for human benefit). The expression was coined by George Miller, one of the acclaimed fathers of cognitive psychology, whose 1969 presidential address to the American Psychological Association (APA) urged psychologists to give psychology away “as a means of promoting human welfare.” The second section of the essay centers on this “responsibility” to give psychological knowledge away for people to use by examining the modes of description employed in what is arguably the most famous experiment in twentieth-century psychology, Stanley Milgram’s series of behavioral studies of obedience. Reported in 1963, Milgram’s experiments continue to be regarded as the preeminent account of human tendencies to obey authority today. Examination of the relevant publications and archival materials indicates, however, that these avowedly objective “behavioral” studies relied on more than descriptions of behavior. They presumed an identifiable ontology that delineated deep psychic motivations and the consequent limitations of human autonomy. In order to assess the implications of Milgram’s ontological presuppositions—for both psychology’s description practices and the dissemination of psychological descriptions—his data analysis is compared with a redescription of that scientific evidence. The redescription contrasts in crucial ways with Milgram’s account of the experimental subjects’ virtually inescapable pull to follow orders. It also shows how much description matters when we aim to give psychology away.

The essay then moves, with an ironic twist, from reviewing psychology’s principal description practices to considering how psychologists devoted to objective descriptions have also engaged interpretation and even undertaken the suspicious and symptomatic reading they frequently denounce (notably in their rejection of psychoanalysis). My turn toward what some might take to be an underside of scientific description aims neither to fault the scientists nor to debunk the science; nor is it intended to promote any wholesale rejection of so-called deep interpretation. Rather, by redescribing an experimental record, I point to ways of reading experimental subjects’ actions that do not depend on either an imagined veridical description (a transparent representation) of those actions or a deep reading of invisible motives or tangled mentations. Without claiming to discover the “real” experimental outcomes, this redescription of the experiment brings attention to the effects of subjects’ behaviors: working with different ontological precepts, it aims to illuminate the performative in the behaviors they emit. Continue reading …

This essay uses the case of scientific psychology to explore modes of description and the broader objectives underlying these modes, reporting on both the complexities and potentials of psychological description. It examines the description techniques of the classic Milgram experiment and offers a redescription of the resulting data to show both how psychology’s practices of description entail more than objective accounts of observed behavior and how these descriptions can influence the social world and our understandings of ourselves. The case of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in obedience suggest the material and social powers of the descriptions psychologists “give away” for human benefit.

JILL MORAWSKI is Wilbur Fisk Osborne Professor of Psychology at Wesleyan University, where she also serves as Chair of the Science in Society Program. Her historical work probes the performances of experimental psychology and the kinds of persons that are enabled or constrained through these scientific practices. Recent articles include “Epistemological Dizziness in the Psychological Laboratory: Lively Subjects, Anxious Experimenters and Experimental Relations” (Isis 2015), and “Livelihoods of Theory: The Case of Goffman’s Early Theory of Self” (Theory & Psychology 2014).