The Representation of Truth

In The Art of Travel Fall 2015, Shanghai, Style by Sammy SongLeave a Comment

About halfway through the assigned chapter from The Art of Travel I planned to restate the Wildean quote I cited for my arrival blog post—but to my surprise I came across a citation of the same quote here: “Wilde remarked that there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it” (Botton 13). Of course I cannot resist Botton’s encouragement to restate this among my all-time favorite quotes.

At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist until Art had invented them.

Even though the classic saying on Aristotelian memesis insists art imitates life, for Wilde life much rather imitates art. The mutual constitution of the processes mimesis and anti-mimesis whereby art imitates life imitates art problematizes the classic model of representation. A passage from The Art of Travel offers an unproblematic account of realist painters “adhering to the classical and until then relatively undisputed notion that their task was to render on canvas an accurate version of the visual world” preexisting symbolic representation—hence van Gogh’s complaint that “no one has painted the real southern Frenchman for us” (qtd. from Botton 8). Yet from this apparent possibility to misrepresent a real-life object or event, not only to media audiences likewise to oneself, I want to problematize the relationship between the truth of the object and event falsified and the symbolic representation of the same object or event. In contrast to the assumptions of the possibility to misrepresent, for discourse and textuality theory the truth and the symbolic representation coextend rather than the former precede the following.

Hence just as for cultural theorist Stuart Hall the textbook model of representation demands from the media analyst a critique of any differences between (1) the imperfect, perhaps even doctored replica, hence misrepresentation, of (2) the real-life object or event wherefrom the capital-T Truth can derive unmediated, likewise for French poststructuralist Jacques Derrida the Western philosophical tradition too assumes the Truth preexists irrespective of symbolic representation: the longstanding bias of logocentrism in Derrida’s terminology. In effect logocentrism prefers speech over writing insofar as the distance from Truth wherefrom speech verges much closer than does writing according to logocentrism: whereas the presence of the speaker situates the hearer closer to firsthand, unmediated Truth already once-removed via speech, graphic symbolization can at most transcribe speech such that writing thereby situates the reader twice-removed. Rather, for Hall and Derrida the distance between matters of fact (indeed truth diminutive) and their representation collapses because symbols cannot be disentangled from the meaning of whatsoever symbolized: the process of representation itself constructs any matters of fact represented. Hence Hall and Derrida doubt the presupposition of a capital-T True Frenchman for van Gogh to represent. The meaning of both the London fog and the Frenchman alike can neither preexist nor exist irrespective of symbolization.

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