Terrence Handscomb – 11 February, 2019
When the space around words-used becomes interdictive and airless, and when cultural censure is everywhere and scorn has become public theatre, truths will be indiscernible until they play havoc in the real world and their violence-of-becoming takes material form. When a singular truth takes a body and becomes art, it will fuck with the expectation that the best art will go to the highest bidder and the best collector.
This is a critical reading of David Hall’s culturally provocative essay ‘Admit Nothing: Mapping Denial,’ in Reading Room: Politics in Denial, Issue 08.18 (2018). Reading Room is published by E. H. McCormack Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
For those of us who live in small worlds it is easy to imagine that we are bigger and more powerful than we are. When real power comes from elsewhere the truth about who and what we are will not be discernible to us. When a world is small, then everything about that world will be internally bound by smallness. Something will always be missing. Those of us who live in diminutive worlds may indeed know ourselves, but what we know will always be less than what we imagine.
‘Admit Nothing: Mapping Denial’ is a compelling repudiation of the sovereign Pākehā postcolonial narrative. Hall’s essay is principally a Derrida-style ‘deconstruction’ of what he sees as the insidious denial mechanisms that lie deep in the state of representation that is the Pākehā postcolonial narrative. At first reading, the essay seems a provocative and accusatory challenge to Pākehā, to first acknowledge and then accept the complex refusal devices that enable their flawed narrative.
One of the principle faults, as Hall sees it, lies in the endemic “pastlessness” of te ao Pākehā — the world of Pākehā, which Hall contrasts with te ao Māori. Quoting the esteemed Maarire Godall, Hall asserts: “Pastlessness is the curse of Pakeha,” it is “… a curse that is absorbed into the state through its majoritarian mechanics.”  By setting up a two-world divide, Hall lays down ground for the deconstruction of a sovereign narrative that privileges one at the expense of another, but it does so under a state of denial.
Following the often misunderstood principles of textual deconstruction made famous by French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Hall attempts to deconstruct the Pākehā postcolonial narrative. This is a narrative in which an excess of representation of one kind leaves a deficit of representation of another.  This deficit, so Hall argues, is a deep-seated state of cultural denial that infects the language and thinking of Pākehā.
Hall adopts an aporetic form of deconstruction: “That which is undeniable can only be denied” is his foundational assertion. This is of course a logical antinomy. But for the subjects that inhabit a sovereign language of power and privilege, an aporetic impasse such as this marks exactly where denial lies. For some, however, deconstruction as a method of textual analysis has a reputation for being extremely dodgy, with Derrida being seen as its master-sophist orchestrator. So when deconstruction is imputed, ‘serious‘ philosophers will smell a rat. There are of course more robust repudiations of deconstruction than this but they all are driven by similar objections: deconstruction is a divisive linguistic setup.
Soon after Derrida’s death in 2004, philosopher Mark Taylor in a New York Times obituary noted: “To his critics, Mr. Derrida appeared to be a pernicious nihilist who threatened the very foundation of Western society and culture. By insisting that truth and absolute value cannot be known with certainty, his detractors argue, he undercuts the very possibility of moral judgment.” 
In the same obituary and with a tone of supreme redemption Taylor adds: “By struggling to find ways to overcome patterns that exclude the differences that make life worth living, he [Derrida] developed a vision that is consistently ethical.” However, not even Derrida could control the dark side of deconstruction when the reversal of power that deconstruction enables, places an even harsher aggressor in the place of privilege.
Nevertheless, it is a mix of good and bad deconstruction, of aporetic harshness and a genuine spirit of ethical intention, that makes Hall’s essay extremely interesting.
The form of deconstruction that Hall initially summons, involves a paradoxical scenario in which opposing terms are established. For Derrida these are, for example, the citizen and the foreigner; the host and the guest; the (State) violation of the inviolable (sanctuary of the home), and so on. But any opposition works: such as for example, Anna-Marie White and Robert Leonard’s great essay ‘George Hubbard: the Hand that Rocked the Cradle’ (Reading Room 08.18, 30), where the allegorical figure of Pākehā institutional cultural law William McAloon is set off against the figure of George Hubbard, the symbolic renegade Māori curatorial outsider. For Hall it is “denying the undeniable” that establishes the aporetic ground for deconstruction.
Derrida is specific: the aporia isolates a turn whereby a text undermines its own rhetorical structure, and thus “deconstructs” itself. For Hall, the crucial site of deconstruction is critically located in the dark zone of Pākehā denial.
Hall: When “… [t]he denier has nothing left — and as long as we know that we are hearing only denial (my emphasis) then a kind of moral truth is back-handedly revealed, a negative space beyond the denial in which we can place our faith.” 
Indeed, the sort of moral truth that deconstruction uncovers must be indiscernible to the denier, because that same truth could never have been deduced from the clean unfettered symbolic fabric of sovereign language — in Badiou-speak: the axiom of foundation legislates against the occurrence of aporetic terms.
If the moral implications of Pākehā denial is not evident in the historiography it enables, then it’s plausible to ask: was the moralising term ever there in the first place? What is it that the denier is denying but which deconstruction reveals. As I see it, the moral bit is extrinsic. The sleight-of-hand back-handed double-take deconstructive turn inserts an indiscernible moral truth into a sovereign text at exactly the same time as the intention to deconstruct that text is enacted. Such moral truths are like hidden linguistic viruses that do their work in the background.
If there is moral meaning to be gleaned from a deconstructed text, then it must lie in a meta-discourse that fills the void spaces where the original text was fractured under the force of deconstruction.
Make no mistake: beneath the artful composure of Hall’s deconstruction of Pākehā denial, lies an incendiary moral device of a kind favoured by leftwing intellectuals, interdictive cultural reparationists and postcolonial apologists; all of whom delight in the satisfying and often hilarious reversals of power that deconstruction appears to enable. However, not even Derrida can control the “consequences,” of deconstruction when, more often than not, the reversal of power that deconstruction enables, places an even harsher aggressor in the place of privilege.
To recall Barthes: the discourse of power is any discourse that engenders blame, and hence guilt, in its recipient. But power travels both ways and reversals can be both stunning and shocking. “… [P]ower is present in the most delicate mechanisms of social exchange: not only in the State, in classes, in groups, in fashion, in politics …, and even in the liberating impulses which attempt to counteract it.” 
For sure, Pākehā pastlessness is a form of denial that upholds an insidious moral paucity: it is “… New Zealand’s foundational denial, denial of te ao Māori, which is the denial of language, a cosmology, a way of being.”  For this, Pākehā should be culpable.
But to paraphrase Iris Murdoch: you can feel guilty simply because you have been accused, more so if you don’t know why. Clearly, Pākehā stand accused and ignorance of wrongdoing is still denial, Hall contends.  Armed with indefatigable cogency and the rhetorical force of deconstruction, Hall smells blood and goes looking for justice.
One of the principle contentions levelled against deconstruction is that it is often used irresponsibly with the consequence of maintaining the very differences that it seeks to deconstruct. Setting up a deconstruction of denial-in-difference in which one side is privileged by denial and the other is denied, has its dangers.
The upshot of all this is that, linguistically speaking, there is no logical way out of the sort of aporetic bind that deconstruction sets up. A defensive subject is ensnared the moment the epistemological effects of denial falls under the rubric of deconstruction. This is a powerful intellectual weapon, but it also opens up deconstruction to the sort of liberal abuse that speaks with the authoritative power of an interdiction and in the monotone voice of political correctness.
Yet I do not read the moralising tone of ‘Admit Nothing’ to be little more than a collateral effect of deconstruction. Even if that is the only reason, the persuasive compulsion and erudite intellection of ‘Admit Nothing’ is just too arresting to be ignored. Plus it is unclear as to why Hall should slip the emblematic figure of a penitent David Lange into the mix. In Hall’s historical telling, Lange is remorseful in the thought that he is somehow personally responsible for the plight of the many New Zealander’s who suffered under the harsh economic pragmatism of Rogernomics. Post Muldoon, the fourth Labour government inherited an economy on the edge of collapse and impending debt default to our international creditors. However, these same creditors would not foreclose the debt in exchange for the government changing its economic policies and opening up New Zealand’s economy to neo-liberal plunder.
The idea that Lange’s personal culpability for being the enabling agent of Rogernomics, and the social brutality that followed, maps easily into a historicity in which past wrongs can be morally mitigated if circumstances can be ideologically extenuated. But the idea that cultural error can be easily alleviated does not map into, nor onto, the incriminatory trajectory of Hall’s inculpations of Pākehā. It is therefore not clear as to what Hall’s Lange discussion is ultimately saying, other than to provide an example of the psychological machinations of political denial and the moral efficacy of coming clean, and the redemptive power of personal contrition—after all, Lange was a Methodist lay preacher. In the end, any narrative that speaks well of David Lange serves also to remind us of a politician whose exceptional oratory eloquence and cutting acerbic wit is sadly missed.
The conclusion from of all of this is that Māori and Pākehā must live together. Even the highly respected figure of the late Dr. Maarire Goodall in his forthright essay ‘Translation and the Treaty,’ weighs in against any zero sum Pākehā-Māori representational standoff in which one state of representation must give way to the inevitable dominance of the another: “We’re definitely in this one together. There no longer is any choice of either Maori or Pakeha dominating.” 
Yet ‘Admit Nothing’ seems not interested in cultural contrition without justice. There would be something fake about a Pākehā pastfulness or ersatz liberal contrition that contrived remorse in order to quieten down the unruly elements of a partnership. This deplorable possibility is perhaps best summed up by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Halfway through ‘Admit Nothing’ Hall abruptly switches from a discussion of postcolonial denial to something, which in my view, is even more insidious: the deep seated mechanisms of denial that enables the toxic mix of capital worth and sham religiosity that rules the art world—to crudely repurpose John Berger’s sarcastic repudiation of Greenbergian aesthetics.
French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello declare the obvious: “Capital has an … active form that values objects, including art works, solely in terms of their resale with a view to profit, thus treating them as if they were financial assets whose exchange is predominantly speculative.” 
The capital utility of art embeds its own denial mechanisms, but Hall strikes closer to home: “What is not so readily acknowledged however, is [New Zealand] art’s entanglement with the economic reforms of 1984-1993, particularly the reliance of its markets, institutions and benefactions on people who played decisive roles in the reforms and accumulated great wealth as a consequence.”  Let us be blunt: the New Zealand 1984-93 economic reforms enabled a whole new order of bourgeois art patrons whose collective egos and residual power are still evident today, if somewhat diminished.
Hall’s discussion of Michael Stevenson’s installation Call me Immendorf (2002) and his work The New Zealand Herald. Colossal Share Market Crash. Wednesday 21 October 1987 (2002) provides a wonderful critique of the art industry’s own complicity in a capital economy of exchange and vertical privilege. Such complicity is just another form of denial that pretends the extrinsic capital value is of art is less important than its intrinsic artistic value.
Indeed, art’s tie to capital should never be underestimated. A capital economy of exchange and art investment means that the most successful art will always carry a representational excess in which its monetary worth will always exceed its critical actuality.
When Jeff Koons’ monumental Puppy was first installed in front of the Residenzschloss Arolsen in Bad Arolsen near Kassel, Germany in 1992, it was both contextually insurgent and materially seductive. Puppy im Residenzschloss Arolsen was reputedly his pissed off response to being left out of Documenta 9, supposedly for Koons’ previous art-world transgressions—fucking his ex-porn-star wife in front of the camera and calling it art.
But Puppy’s monumental aesthetic seduction was inculcated with another force: fiscal irony. ‘Art is money, money is seduction’ is one of Koons’ key signatures. It is ironic that when Puppy was purchased by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1997 and installed outside Guggenheim Balboa, three members of the Basque insurgency group ETA attempted to plant explosive-filled flowerpots around it. Their actions resulted in their shooting and killing of a policeman who attempted to stop them.
ETA is a real-world insurgency whose actions have intended dire consequences; ETA’s exploding flowerpots was a real art intervention. Koons’ internal artworld spat-cum-insurgency was little more than a fake revolution of the kind that was immediately rewarded with Koons laughing all the way to the bank and the art world laughing along with him.
Like it does in other economies, artistic prosperity flourishes in an environment of fiscal growth. For an art market bogged down with tiresome international art fairs and biennales, this usually means that artists must continually create new bodies of work, new novelties and new visual languages to supersede all that which came before.
Unless art untethers itself from power and greed (it won’t happen) there will be no voice whose purity remains strong enough and long enough for its song to carry beyond the din of the marketplace.
There is a self-satisfied complacency in New Zealand art whereby the idea of ‘revolution’ is seen to be a dated vestige of the historical avant-garde—I discovered this recently in conversation with a K’ Rd gallerist. Clearly the theme of revolution in art is not marketable right now. Despite there being a cluster of K-Road artists who are determined to be successful and make money, there is nevertheless an urgent mood in some New Zealand artist clusters for whom marketplace hopes and promises (so far) seem to hold little value. Some members of the discontinued Auckland artist collective Terror Internationale (now morphed into Mercy Pictures) have, through an ever-widening online community, associated themselves with the key figures of the sort of insurgent New York/Paris based art and fashion collective Bernadette Corporation. 
For other artists, the current state of art is unclear and clarification is deemed urgent. Video artist Hito Steyerl asks: “How can one think of art … in an age that is defined by planetary civil war, growing inequality, and proprietary digital technology? … Is it possible, in this situation, to update the twentieth-century terminology of institutional critique? Or does one need to look for new models and prototypes?” 
The answer to this question may be urgent in a big world, but safe old New Zealand’s art scene is still a tiny one and, by current world standards, our political well-being relatively safe and secure. No matter how much we may wish to imagine that we support an exciting transgressive cultural otherness, one suspects that for any arts insurgency in New Zealand to become visible it would need to be manufactured according to overseas specifications gleaned from online news feeds, social media, and art journals.
Imputing pastfulness may be good political theatre for Pākehā cultural apologists, but for most of us, who are trying to make sense of a fucked-up world, we have become bound to our own pathos in time. Whether we like it or not, any Pākehā ontology of pastfulness in which we may contrive to meet some cultural interdictive, will still be anchored in the wider psychological contagion of a pathological present. Te ao Pākehā is a tiny scene intersecting a much bigger one, so it is plausible for its inhabitants to ask: what the hell’s going on in the big world, and will it fuck us up as well?
But, being caught in the present can be good for art, because the singular occurrences that bring real change are themselves bound to a radical present.
That the present does not exist is a fallacy. The psychological uncertainty of a meaningless past and a perilous future, means that for many of us the present is indeed the only thing that is real. That which does not exist in a real way exists only in memory or some imagined future. Perhaps this is where Māori cosmology and Pākehā ontology remain mutually disjointed. 
“In art there are only bodies and languages, except that there are truths.”  This is Badiou at the height of percipience. Yet the simplicity of his words belies a complex ontology of exceptional occurrences—he calls them “events”—that then form complex topologies of sites and subjects against which “the exception” is localised and made real. Putting this another way: truths which are indiscernible for the inhabitants of a small world become discernible when that small world becomes a bigger one. Events will extend a small world and make it irreversibly bigger.
When the space around words-used becomes interdictive and airless, and when cultural censure is everywhere and scorn has become public theatre, truths will be indiscernible until they play havoc in the real world and their violence-of-becoming takes material form. When a singular truth takes a body and becomes art, it will fuck with the expectation that the best art will go to the highest bidder and the best collector. Real advances in art are necessarily transgressive and will mess with assumptions and violate the values that were once held to be inviolable. Like all singular occurrences, those that occur in art are rare and momentary.
In art there are bodies of work and there are visual languages through which an ever fluid semiotics of meaning is activated. When an artwork enters the public domain its semiotics of meaning is up for grabs. Subjects carry the burden of truth as much as they may choose to litigate its denial.
Yet the narrative of creative new beginnings in a fiscal economy means something quite different than it does when a song of new beginnings rises up from a poiësis of loss and mourning. This is how revolutions are fomented. At a time when the voice of love and joy is so easily corrupted by the mush-making will of capital, even the sweet song of birth and new beginnings will only be heard as an insurgent cry.
1. Hall. 74. Hall attributes the term “pastlessness” to Māori doctor, scientist and first permanent member of the Waitangi Tribunal, Dr. Maarire Goodall. The idea that “Pastlessness is the curse of Pakeha” arose as a counter-argument to ‘One New Zealand’ critics who: “…deride us for our living evocations of the past, of our cherished ancestors…”, “Translation and the Treaty,” in Now See Hear!, Language Art and Translation (Wellington: VUW Press and Wellington City Art Gallery, 1990), 32.
2. See Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).
3. Mark Taylor, “What Derrida Really Meant,” New York Times, October 14, 2004.
4. Hall, 69.
5. Roland Barthes, Inaugural Lecture, Collège de France, January 7, 1977.
6. Hall, 72.
7. Cf. Hall, 72-74.
8. Maarire Goodall, op.cit., 29.
9. Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2018), xiii.
10. Hall, 81-82.
11. For an extended discussion of the relationship between Bernadette Corporation and New Zealand’s Terror Internationale/Mercy Pictures and ‘insurgency’ in New Zealand art, see Simon Gennard’s essay “Nothing Ever Happens,” Reading Room 08.18, 104-120.
12. Hito Steryerl, Duty Fee Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War (London: Verso, 2017), 172.
13. Maarire Goodall’s image of personal time appeals to a different cosmology: “Pakeha have a contrary image in their minds and perhaps misinterpret our high regard for the past as a guide to the future. I can see and know the past, it is spread out before me, I can see what consequences flowed from which causes. Events of the future behind me, still unseen, until my arrow of personal time carries me further to see things unfold before me to join the past and the known.” Maarire Goodall, op. cit. 24.
14. This is the principle episteme of Badiou’s later ‘transcendental logic’: “There are only bodies and languages, except that there are truths.” Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II (New York: Continuum, 2009), 4.
Love to hear orchestral classical music live?
CLICK HERE to follow this orchestra’s adventurous performing programme
To read a transcript of the panel discussion “Whose Oceania?” held recently in London, and more on NZ arts abroad, CLICK HERE
Two Rooms presents a program of residencies and projects
by leading international and New Zealand contemporary artists.