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The Real, Reality and Representation
The 'real' in everyday usage denotes 'actually existing and happening and not imagined or pretended' (OED). It is in this sense that the 'real' denotes phenomenon perceived as an elemental principle, or 'a material substrate which exists in itself, independently of any observer' (Evans 1996: 160), and not as imagined or fabricated to suit one's convenient fantasies. But in art and literature, controversy begins when 'reality' is mobilized to assert that the purpose of an artwork is 'to show things as they really are' (Williams 1983: 259). All artists stake a claim to the second notion – from the European classicists, down to the absurdists and the postmodernists, even if their works do not conform to the first notion. Hence, when engaging with art, it may be helpful not to confuse the first 'reality' with the second by remembering that the artwork is the result of selection and arrangement of the first 'reality', which attempts to achieve the second.
Importantly, as a consequence of selection and arrangement, the artwork in question may or may not bear semblance with the first 'reality.' As the symbolists would argue, the ultimate 'truth' can neither be comprehended by the five senses, nor expressed in terms of the first reality since it veils the 'truth.'
Perhaps the problem with the 'reality' of an artwork was compounded by Realism, when it mobilized positivism - a philosophy based on experience and empirical knowledge of natural phenomena - insisted that the 'Truth' can only be comprehended when the artwork makes both the notions of reality equivalent, because only a true copy of a phenomenon perceived as an elemental principle can present reality – and 'Truth' - as it 'really' is.
One of the most celebrated paintings in Baroque art where the subject of the painting seems to be Princess Marguarita. But a second look simply makes one rethink the goings on within the same frame. The picture, due to the strategic placement of a mirror, meddles with the notion of reality and representation raising questions about the belief in a fixed and stable relationship between the two.
The mirror seems to alter the relationship between the image – which is representation – and the onlooker – one who usually expects never to be stared back. The work raises one's curiosity as the mirror privileges an uncanny revelation: Philip IV and his wife Mariana become visible to the onlooker – both, unexpectedly, appear to be standing on the viewer's side of the pictorial space. One may also interpret this as a way for the artist to subject the viewer to the stare of the royal couple who are nowhere to be found – neither in the painted space, nor beyond it.
'The value of Valasquez's painting for Foucault lies in the fact that it introduces uncertainties in visual representation at a time when the image and paintings in general were looked upon as 'windows onto the world,' writes Brent Whitmore to elucidate the puzzling implications both reality and representation have for most of us.
The Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács (1977:56) expanded the horizon of the notion of reality by gathering together the work of literary masters such as Cervantes, Shakespeare, Balzac, Tolstoy, Gorky and Thomas Mann under the rubric of 'the great works of realism,' characterized by their 'profound and accurate grasp of constant and typical manifestation of human life.'
For Lukács, realism was contingent on the artiste's ability of 'penetrating beneath the surface appearance of reality so as to be able to grasp the underlying laws of historical change' (Hawthorn 2000: 293). However, Bertolt Brecht also staked a claim for reality but rejected Lukács on the ground that 'Realism is not a matter of form.' 'Realist means,' he contends, 'laying bare society's causal network / showing up the dominant viewpoint as the viewpoint of the dominators / writing from the standpoint of class …' (Brecht 1964: 109).
Problematizing 'reality' as a stable and objective world of the modernist-materialists such as Lukács and Brecht, Freud draws a distinction between 'material reality' and 'psychical reality' (Evans 1996: 161). Lacan moves further into a hitherto uncharted terrain by distinguishing between the real and the reality. He gropes toward the real by pointing at 'this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence' (Lacan 1988, 164). Rejecting an unproblematic formulation of the notion as a self-evident given, Lacan (1992: 225) argues that 'reality isn't just there so that we bump our heads up against the false paths along which the functioning of pleasure principle leads us.' Rather, 'reality denotes subjective representations which are a product of symbolic and imaginary articulations' (Evans 1996: 161), since it 'remains predicated on the signifier, and the subject still inhabits an infinitely signifying universe' (Walsh 1995). More importantly, 'reality is un-Real' (Walsh 1995).
Thus, as 'reality' is permanently unhinged from its secure mooring, the (Western) humanist conception of the human self (or subject) that was hitherto defined by rationality, free will, and self-reflection was also permanently destabilized.
From Brecht to Baudrillard via Lacan – and hence from modernism to postmodernism - is not a huge jump if one does not lose track of the twist of reality into virtual reality. Baudrillard illustrates the twist by speculating on the news that the Disney enterprise is about to acquire the 'hot' section of 42nd Street in New York city, 'to transform it into an erotic theme park, with the intention of changing hardly anything of the street itself. The idea would be simply to transform, in situ, one of the high centers of pornography into a branch of Disney World. Transforming the pornographers and the prostitutes, […] into extras [figurants] in their own world, metamorphosed into identical figures, museumified, disneyfied' (Baudrillard 1996). It is here that 'reality' slips behind simulacrum, such that 'unreality no longer resides in the dream or fantasy, or in the beyond, but in the real's hallucinatory resemblance to itself' (Baudrillard 1998: 145).
Perhaps, then, an artwork does not simply reflect reality thought to lie out there in the 'real' world. At the same time, it is also not an invention of a solipsistic world on which the artist imposes their unique meaning. Perhaps an artwork is a representation of reality, in that it re-presents (i.e., makes present again) a reality, in a manner that it (the artwork) is underpinned by aesthetic or semiotic value (i.e., it 'stands for' other things) as well as political value (it 'acts for' other person, body or notion).
The semiotic value is produced because the members of a culture mobilize 'language' (i.e., any signifying system) in order to produce meaning. However, 'meaning' in the above process is inevitably rendered 'floating' and is always-already deferred because the 'text' of the artwork is 'a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces' (Derrida 1979: 84), is woven by numerous strands inscribed with fragments of history, and is contingent on the specific time-space context into which it sends its tentacles.
Thus, not only is the 'meaning' caught up in a 'circle of meaning, but also the dominant (i.e., 'preferred') reading of a representation renders transparent its constructed characteristics; it transforms the representation as a historically contingent site of struggle for power into a seamless, self-evident and timeless 'reflection' of 'the way things are,' erasing all trace of the political value.
- Jean Baudrillard (1998), Symbolic Exchange of Death. In Mark Poster (ed. and intro), Selected Writings. Liberation, accessed on 18 April 2010 from Bertolt Brecht (1964), The Popular and the Realistic. In John Willet (tr. and notes), Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.
- Dylan Evans (1996), An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.
- Jeremy Hawthorn (Ed.) (2000), A Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Edward Arnold.
- Jacques Lacan (1988), The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Techniques of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55, Sylvana Tomaselli (tr.). Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press.
- Jacques Lacan (1992), The Seminars of Jacques Lacan, Book 7, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton & Co.
- Georg Lukács (1977), Realism in the balance. In Ernst Bloch (ed.), Aesthetics and Politics: The Key Texts within the Classic Debate within German Marxism. London, Verso, 28-59.
- Pierre Macherey (1978), A Theory of Literary Production, Geoffrey Wall (tr.). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- W J T Mitchell (1995), Representation. In Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (eds.), Critical Terms for Literary Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 11-22.
- Michael Walsh (1995), Reality, the real, and the Margaret-Thatcher-signifier in two British films of the 1980s, American Imago, 52: 169-189, accessed from on 18 April 2010.
SYED JAMIL AHMED is a proactive threatre personality and scholar, and professor at the Department of Theatre, Dhaka University. He is the author of 'Achinpakhi Infinity: Indigenous Theatre of Bangladesh'; 'In Praise of Niranjan: Islam, Theatre and Bangladesh'; 'Reading Against the Orientalist Grain: Performance and Politics entwined with a Buddhist Strain'; and a number of vernacular publications on theatre and performances of the region.