Issue: №1 2005

Section: Analysis

Through the Many Faces of Idiocy

Through the Many Faces of Idiocy

Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe. From the series “The Life of Remarkable Monroe”. 1995. Color photograph. Courtesy XL Gallery, Moscow

Viktor Mazin Theoretician, art critic and curator. Specialist in theoretical psychoanalyses. Founder of Sigmund Freud Dream Museum in St-Petersburg. Lives in St-Petersburg. Olesya Turkina Critic and curator. Member of the MAM Editorial Board. Lives in St-Petersburg

1. To Myself I am Me

It is common knowledge that idios means 'peculiar' in Greek. 'Idiot' does not only imply "mentally retarded"; more fittingly, it means "to himself he is him", "by himself", "a person of his own", "to himself he is in his senses", or "not like everybody else", "not like any other", "different from the others". In other words, an idiot is someone who displays peculiarity, self-will, originality, self-assuredness, self-interest. He displays everything that singles him out as an idiot in an established system of social relations, so that he becomes a non-social element in society, a social outcast. It must be pointed out that an idiot is always an "outcast" in his own society; he is an outsider in his own space; he is outside of his own time. Thus, Lemuel Gulliver was not considered an idiot in the places where he was a foreigner, an other, but at home, where he was no stranger. Gulliver is not an idiot in Lilliput, Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Japan, Brobdingnag, or in the land of the Houyhnhnm. He is an idiot in his homeland England, in the place where he tells his people of his adventures, in the place where he cannot become compatible, adequate, or similar; in the place where he cannot distinguish "acquaintances" from "strangers", in the place where his "acquaintances" feel that "he is behaving in such an utterly incomprehensible manner" that they decide that he has lost his mind.

So the story is that the idiot does not depend on time. An idiot is either behind his time, like Don Quixote, or ahead of his time, like Tsiolkovsky, putting into practice the principle of Vlaviy Sacrus: "Today's delirium is tomorrow's science; today's science is tomorrow's delirium". Typically, the metaphorical idiot is the one who explores the future, so it goes without saying that he contradicts traditional psychiatric conceptions of idiocy as a serious retardation in an individual's mental development. The idiot presents a phase displacement in relation to the presence of time. "It is you who are idiots" – the conservative psychiatrists might say – "you who started, you see, praising the glory of idiocy." But idiots are unhappy people with a serious mental retardation; they are subnormal; they are individuals that are slowed in their development, psychic defectives, degenerates incapable of speaking... "It is you who are idiots", these psychiatrists might say, and they will be right. To a certain extent, they are right for the following reason:

2. Self-interest

In order to write about idiocy not clinically, not diagnostically, but culturally, metaphorically, you have to see yourself as an idiot, an absolute idiot. After all, figurative, literal, and virtual meanings stop the flow of time. The writer falls from actuality and points toward the fictitious character of description, which develops according to the following principle: his writing now does not exist in what is considered contemporary, conventional reality. Then again, you can always find certain fulcra in this fictitious reality, points of bearing that allow affective involvement, the possibility of unconscious identifications, and ultimately, the possibility of a certain libidinous economy.

Certainly, it is one thing when somebody calls you an idiot, but it is something entirely different when a psychiatrist writes "idiocy" in your case history or when you call yourself an idiot. The problem is that the phrase "I am an idiot" is a total contradiction in terms. Whoever can say this is already not an idiot in the clinical sense. Therefore, the authors of this text are idiots on a metaphorical level; they have been made into idiots by a delirium of etymological associations, that is to say an intelligible construct that lacks the possibility for any a priori resolution within the limits of the opposition correct/incorrect. The authors/idiots are openly stubborn, self-willed, peculiar, self-assured, and self-interested. It is not by chance that they are reproached for writing "about themselves" and "for themselves". They choose how to write, about what to write, about whom to write, what to write for, whom to write for, and, in the end, what to write with. Idiots, strictly speaking.

It is unconventionality that expresses this kind of meta-idiocy. The unconventionality and confusion of the discourses at hand show in how far your sensibilities change in dependence on the object that you are writing about. This changed sensibility becomes a certain idiosyncrasy towards conventions, towards an attempt to confer a dominant role to this or that type of discourse.

3. Self-Image

It is common knowledge that an individual's self-image arises through the appropriation of his-her own reflection, or to be more precise, in that which passes for his-her own reflection. This process is called the mirror stage. In this stage, it is already possible to encounter the primary idiocy of peculiarity, the self-image's initially deviant nature, distorted and disoriented by the reflecting surface. What is interesting is that this process does not occur between the ages of one and a half and three, as is commonly assumed, but that it keeps happening throughout the entire phase of maturation. Especially when we are talking about identification with ideal images, with images of a narcissistic nature. Fairy tales constantly present the mechanism of such identifications. For an example, in Pushkin's "The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Knights" we read "Tell me, pretty looking-glass,/ Nothing but the truth, I ask:/ Who in all the world is fairest/ And has beauty of the rarest?"/ And the looking-glass replied:/ "You, it cannot be denied." The tragic element of the situation, however, is that this particular moment of identification with one's own image is impossible. It is no longer possible to "laugh with glee,/ Shrug the shoulders merrily,/ Puff the cheeks and bat the eyelids,/ Flick the fingers coyly, slyly,/ Prance around with hand on hips,/ Arrogance upon the lips". Taking leave from this narcissistic image is a necessary condition for socialization, for entering the space of one culture or another. Otherwise, if you don't blame the image, you will find yourself blaming the technology of reproduction: the mirror.
"Oh, you loathsome looking-glass,/ Telling lies as bold as brass!"

In the transition between narcissistic identification and object identification the position of one ideal-image is replaced by a plurality of images from which the construction of the "I" is formed. In some cases – one can say, rather rare cases – appropriated images, or more precisely, ideal-images break loose from their orbit to become the reflecting surfaces of narcissistic radiance. The ideal example of this type of identity is Vladislav Mamyshev, who is famous under several names. The images that he appropriates complete his identity to the point of absolute originality. The moment he meets his self is a moment of triumph, an instant in which the entire world has been devoured. Thus, Vladislav Mamyshev's originality lies in the fact that his own image is never the same, that it always a great, simultaneous diversity of images. Let us have a look at this multifaceted originality: Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, Vladislav Mamyshev-Lenin, Vladislav Mamyshev-Hitler, Vladislav Mamyshev-Peter I, Vladislav Mamyshev- Sherlock Holmes, Vladislav Mamyshev-Korolevich, Vladislav Mamyshev-Stalin, Vladislav Mamyshev-Catherine II... Here, this diversity of peculiarities appears as a paradox.

Furthermore, even his own image needs to be constantly re-appropriated in such a way that, if there is no other person "handy", then the mirror comes to the rescue. This mirror, in fact, is magical. "Tell me, pretty looking-glass...": these are the words that Vladislav Mamyshev keeps repeating. They testify to an uninterrupted process of the self-image's reconstruction. This type of behavior is what constitutes Mamyshev's work as an artist, his art of idio-kleptomania. The resulting originality is completed by a series of other processes, in particular by the tendency to absorb and appropriate not only images but all of those objects that are generally called nice, and to give back or throw away those objects that are considered bad.

This economy of redistribution displays the mechanism of idealization quite accurately. This is hardly a case of purely visual phantasmagoria. Instead, the expurgation of negative objects takes place in symbolic space: as Mamyshev's body recuperates, becomes saturated, assumes its contours to the full, his speech is directed towards the elimination of "defects", which are now assigned to somebody else. The absence of the Law and of a Thinking Head does not lead not to the paranoid-schizoid bifurcation of the world so much as it supplies the role of the quasi-trickster – the one who takes off and puts on masks, the one who tells the "truth" about the others and himself.

4. Self-Customs

Yufit already acquired his own peculiar customs when he destroyed the established order and began to execute actions that were not so much unlawful and prearranged as displaced and automatic, unexpected and paradoxical, dislocated from the aims that assure the organism's "normal" functioning. Examples of such peculiar behavior can be found in a group, aimlessly running through the woods, in the imitations of mass fights in suburban trains, or in the beating of a mannequin called "Zurab" on building sites and in gateways. The next peculiar step was the filming of these dislocated actions with a movie camera and the departure of the footage from normal speed. Events develop at accelerated speed that is typical of erratic idiocy, characterized by unstoppable hyperkinetic movement, and sometimes, epileptoid fits, in which the body curves like an arch. The necro-actors in Yufit's films, as well as Yufit himself, continue to demonstrate this "bridge" position.

Beginning in 1989, the evolutionary speed of pathological events in Yufit's films headed off in another direction. The time of events in his films stretched endlessly, becoming the time of stupid idiocy, which is characterized by motoric and emotional dormancy. However, in Yufit's necroideology proper, this type of activity is characterized as stupidity and not as idiocy. Nevertheless, in the reviews on Yufit's necroactivity, it was very often – and still is – possible to find the definition "idiots". All the same, the notion of "stupidity" became a peculiar idiom in necrorealism; peculiar to such an extent that when translated into other languages,, it usually requires a detailed note. "Stupidity" does not mean "stupidity" in its conventional use at all. It is not idiocy intended as underdevelopment, or ignorance (idioteia). It is instead intended as a precise notion that Yufit takes from the field of the everyday, of the lower, of Bakhtin's linguistic culture of the carnival with the addition of a specific necro-value. The regressive existence of Yufit's characters and the aforementioned possibilities for interpreting the event speed in his films as clinical forms of idiocy do not at all assume that the "author" will be diagnosed, not at all. In this case, the idiocy in the films allows us to question rationality, science, technology as a form of anthropogenesis, which permanently demonstrates pathological, irrational, and deviant behavior. As a matter of fact, idiocy became a mimetic strategy in necropractice.

It seems to us that the issue of stupidity and idiocy is characterized by their identity with different contexts. One of them implies defining someone with a deviating discourse in an everyday mode of speech, while the other is correlated with scientific, psychiatric connotations. In certain situations, these words sound like synonyms in a semantic – but not in an acoustic or associative – sense: "What are you, stupid?" and "What are you, an idiot?"

Is it possible to call the following story from Yufit's archive stupid or idiotic? This story is rather pathological and illustrative. The story in which an eyewitness passed by, heard a sound, hurried to it, waited, and turned himself into either an experimenter or a quasi-scientific empiricist.

"At 7 in the morning I was passing by a hospital construction site. The pickup tracks had already begun to bring in the materials. When I was at the end of the village, just before the woods begin, I suddenly heard a muffled explosion coming from the building site. Two more followed it. I ran back. Near the building site, turkeys were running and crying. From time to time one of them suddenly swelled up to the size of a gigantic ball until it exploded into small pieces. It was dangerous to go closer and do anything. I could only stay where I was and wait until this disgraceful event would be over. When the explosions stopped, it was explained to us that turkeys had pecked up the carbide at the construction site."

5. Self-Will

Speaking about the many faces of idiocy, it is necessary to note that there are specific cases when the assertion "their morals" is replaced by "our morals". This formula brings altruism to the forefront: on the one hand, the movement along philogenetic channels, the diachronic deepening into totem, exceeds the limits (to a certain extent, of course) of a pernicious race after the present. On the other hand, it consents to structure self-identity and, one might say, self-idiocy, not at the expense of the present, but at the expense of the others, who exist, so to speak, beyond time, before man as a symbolic subject. In this case, the initiation process of becoming an individual is subject to symbolization.

The ritual self-will in this initiation emerges as a compulsion that necessarily repeats a certain gesture in an obsessive manner. This kind of conceptual stereotypy appears, for an example, in the long-term reproduction of the same images, in minimal variations on one theme. Oleg Kotelnikov draws one penguin after another, collects penguins, colors penguins, makes serigraphs of penguins, writes about penguins, and dedicates his poems to penguins, whereas Andrey Medvedev multiplies images of a white bear with the same accuracy. the conceptualism of stereotypy lies in the repetition related to the ideogram as an idea, rather than in the repetition of the ideogram as an image: it repeats the idea of a penguin and the idea of a bear. Penguins and bears are reproduced time and time again in archaic, animistic, totemic images. As a matter of fact, bears and penguins function as the artists' signature, as well performing their artistic, deictic, and aesthetic roles.
In this case, the artist is the totem's descendant. It is where he comes from, acting according to the principle that Oleg Kotelnikov calls to "come from".

6. Self-Assurance

The practices of the group "Inspection Medical Hermeneutics" can be defined as re-comprehension, alteration, and even revision of idiomatic structures. They address the dead zones of the language, semantic buoys uniformly rocking under unconscious signifiers. The idio (ma) tic practice of the MH's hermeneutic world analyses fairy tales and myths. It retells them in their own words, so that idioms become visible in eyewitness accounts. During the hermeneutic operation, idioms are translated – though they are untranslatable – into visual images. MH's idio (ma) tic strategy is affective conceptualism, which confers a new semiotic structure to such sacral zones of language as obscenity ["mat" in Russian]: affected through the concept, the idio-obscenity clears away. It spreads and dissolves. Analyzed in discourse and through the visual sphere, the emotional experience is correlated with certain ideal objects, be it a literary agent like Gogol's "Portrait", a character from a tale like Kolobok, or the hallucinosis of Dunaev's partorg [party bureaucrat]. The visualized description – an image made vivid even if it is not materialized, even if it still belong exclusively to literature and the archive of the reader's imagination – keeps structuring itself in the conceptual space of the symbolic. The visuality of writing points to the eidetic nature of MH's discourse. It retains both eidos as image and eidos as idea. MH's hermeneutic practice, based on an eidetic, brightly flashing image can be defined as visible self-assured, as eidiotic.

Like an image of a word and the echo of a letter, ideotism contains the indication of a certain episode of subjectivation, in which the objective world is symbolized and the conquest of the world accompanies the feeling of omnipotence, the omnipotence of language. This follows the mirror stage and it could be defined, in P. Pepperstein's terminology, as an "audio mirror" or as "Narcissus's echo-audio mirror". The world answers to the word.

MH's ideotism fulfills a therapeutic function: it stitches up the existent rupture within the limits of the sign, the splitting in the audio and optical components. Moreover, MH's idiotism is basically directed towards the constant correction in the mirroring ring of the narcissistic echo. Finally, ideotism presupposes the understanding that "contemporary art allows repressed discourses to speak".


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