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The Voice as Uncanny and Tension, Time and Tenderness







Dr Claire Pajaczkowska, currently Senior Research Tutor Fashion and Textiles at the Royal College of Art, contributed a very important chapter on textiles in the multidisciplinary modern art analytical book Digital and Other Virtualities: Renegotiating the Image (2010). Edited by Antony Bryant and Griselda Pollock, Dr Pajaczkowska's chapter offers a unique and needed examination of what may arguably be a medium lacking in contemporary examination – perhaps a victim of its success as a nearly ubiquitous material. It is worth noting that Dr Pajaczkowska's observations and study of textiles intersect with modern art installation, film, photography, traditional and historic cultures, and come equipped with a vast understanding of fabrics, manufacturing methods and sartorial arrangements.

Three years later, Dr Alexandra Kokoli composed an important analysis of Susan Hiller's 21-minute The Last Silent Movie, using a vast and deep knowledge of psychoanalytical work, feminist art practice, linguistics and semiotics. Semiotics is the study of visual cues that deliver specific meanings through colour-coding or special images. In modern times we are at least fleetingly familiar with hazard and traffic signs; but historically, and particularly in the manufacture of all types of textiles, colour, weave and fabric combinations could also demonstrate cultural and social meaning. A common point of research to pioneering linguists in the 19th century, Dr Pajaczkowska applies the research methods of Swiss linguist and semiotics scholar Ferdinand Mongin de Saussure [1857-1913] to her own elaboration on the subject. As observed by Dr Pajaczkowska, French Philosopher Roland Gérard Barthes [1915-1980] also employed such methods when discussing plastics in his 1957 magnum opus on then-modern culture, Mythologies.

Throughout the history of textiles and into modern commercial usages, practitioners of semiology as envisioned by de Saussere have unpackaged metaphorical meanings; this is in stark contrast to formalists, whose textile creations are conceptually founded on the idea of the visual result as a means to itself, without any iconography or other meaning. That being understood, Dr Pajaczkowska aims in her work to examine all textiles in “Sausserean terms”. Divided into three primary areas of focus – Tension, Time and Tenderness – these Sausserean methods are employed to examine each on their own terms. The emphasis on the use of linguistic research techniques and the discerning eye of semiology is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in this tract from the Time section:


“An identifying characteristic of a language is the fact that its patterns of combination and selection have an ‘unmotivated’ or ‘arbitrary’ relationship between their form and meaning, analogous to the arbitrary relationship between the sounds of words and their meaning. Can this be said of the elements of textiles—for example, the stitch as a means of securing two or more surfaces?”


Transposing language into an artistic medium is explored by both Kokoli and Pajaczkowska, albeit in very different spheres. Perhaps one of the most interesting observations – conclusions? - of Dr Pajaczkowska is a sort of embedded mini-thesis under the Tenderness section elaborating on the notion of what might be called a cultural muscle memory:


“Fabric, in its paradoxical transposition of sensory registers, restores to us the memory of an experience that took the form of ‘states of being’ rather than organized separate sensory modalities. This memory offers the promise of a return to a lost ‘oceanic’ state of synaesthetic synergy, where boundaries differentiating self from other have become fluid, permeable or mutable. The promise held by the fantasy of the restoration of this state, from memory to actuality, is one of the elimination of affects of loss, suspension of anxiety, and a lifting of the burden of sense used for reality testing and self-observation. It is a fantasy of the potential victory of the ‘pleasure principle’ over the ‘reality principle’.”


The semiotics research of American mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce [1839-1914] is used by both Pajaczkowska and Kokoli, although in the case of Pajaczkowska this is to a somewhat lesser extent to that of de Saussere. It is perhaps worth noting that Peirce's ideas of “firstness, secondness and thirdness, or icon, index and symbol” are similar to the format of Louise Bourgeois's installations; Louise herself was originally a student of mathematics at the Sorbonne and who was fleetingly mentioned in Tension, Time and Tenderness.


Comparison Notes

Within Pajaczkowska's three-section paper

  • The Tension section concentrates initially on the weave, structure and detail of the physical fabrics themselves. Time primarily examines more historic and psychological underpinnings. Tenderness is psychological, but from the perspective of the wearer of textiles rather than their theoretical place in a wider system.


  • In Tension, Dr Pajaczkowska attempts to analyse the construction of fabrics with linguistic templates; Time and Tenderness are primarily extrapolated with the truth yielded from psychology.


  • A vast array of cultures and peoples are referenced – African in Tension, Greek in Time along with Biblical references, amongst others.


  • Agency: Dr Pajaczkowska concludes that textiles have an “agency” of their own, with their unique ability to convey cultural meaning, personal feelings of physical comfort and sense memory.


Between Pajaczkowska and Kokoli's work

  • Both papers go to some length to develop notions of relationships between linguistic cultural expressions and textile cultural expressions that may have cultural meanings explained by semiotics.


  • Both make use of the works of Charles Sanders Peirce and Roland Gérard Barthe, although Kokoli does not cite de Saussere.


  • Whereas Pajaczkowska concentrates on Sub-Saharan Africans for a non-Western cultural use of textiles, Dr Kokoli mentions indigenous people in North America including Blackfoot and Lenape as languages and people who appear in Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie.

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