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"Scum of the Earth" text by Rodney Sharkey

"He is speechless. He is in a dark room. In front of him a black and white image of a human figure pounds his/her head against a bed head, desperately attempting to communicate something. Almost immediately he feels the figure’s desperation, perhaps the desperation of speaking, of communicating, of representing. He senses illness, or does he simply see it? Gradually, his response becomes the focus of his attention. Is he imposing his own alarm at the figure, onto the figure? Can he really read suffering here or has a neutral image stirred something alarming in him? The piece is called “Scum of the Earth.” The show is called “How Things Turn Out.” It is an exhibition of work by selected contemporary Irish artists. He watches the piece for about five minutes before the explicitly irregular nature of the edit alerts him to something. The figure is communicating, but in a different language; in the language of Morse code. All he knows of Morse code is that it communicates through sound patterns of various lengths and punctuation. He begins to realise that the piece insofar as it speaks, speaks a different language to that of the traditionally verbal. This strikes him as a very appropriate metaphor for an art work that seems to be designed towards generating a sense of communicative breakdown, and perhaps even psychological breakdown."

So how then to write about it, if the piece itself so clearly implies difficulty in communicating at a verbal level? The danger is that a narrative treatment of “Scum of the Earth” might be interpreted as an explication. It is necessary, then, to complement the manner in which “Scum of the Earth” communicates in an alternative discourse. A written treatment must draw attention to the work’s self-conscious approach to verbal communication as communicative difficulty. And it should do this without suggesting that words can explain the function, or even the effect(s) of this work.

The careful reader will now recognise an essential schizophrenia here. While these comments acknowledge the linguistic turn away from transparent signifiers, at the same time they suggest that “Scum of the Earth” makes a clear point about the validity of alternative forms of discursive communication. Perhaps an appeal for calm can be made by referring the reader to certain pertinent contexts which reinforce the view that “Scum of the Earth” does indicate the presence of a non-verbal ‘message.’ Certainly, the Morse code communicates something, if only that the figure is attempting to communicate. Further, the framed image has been quarried from Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny got his Gun,” a little-known but humorous and memorable film about a war veteran deprived of all of his senses in battle. Further, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, where “Scum of the Earth” was first exhibited, is housed in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham which was originally built for retired and disabled British Soldiers during the eighteenth century. The museum also looks out over the Wellington monument in Dublin’s Phoenix Park and it is known that Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, or what were then known as “dark moods”.

But if this contextual excavation might seem essentialist, this is not to attempt to circumscribe either the directions that “Scum of the Earth” might take, or the expectations of the audiences that might encounter it. New Historicist approaches to temporal hermeneutics are useful here. How does one speak of the past with the tools of the present? Indeed, how do the discourses of the present define, or alter, the nature of the past? Francis Barker writes that

"Enough of the past is lost, and looks in any case so different from different points of vantage, for history itself to be regarded as no more (and indeed, no less) than a present fiction which must be constructed obliquely according to the often only half-apprehended order of contemporary needs and struggles."

The view that history is naught but a series of past and present fictions reflecting the ideological position of its authors is pertinent when considering Phelan’s work. In relation to “Scum of the Earth,” the choice made by its creator is to use an image that seems to communicate stress and trauma. The use of Morse code might localise this trauma in a twentieth century military context, but the fact that it simultaneously excludes a gallery audience from access to a message is therefore important. It seems to be a way of ‘saying’ to the viewer that for an understanding of the reality of war, or war-induced trauma, it is perhaps necessary to know war as a communicable experience. Therefore, by suggesting that it cannot really communicate the experience of war but only represent it, “Scum of the Earth” is suitably self-effacing. Such a strategy is also tactful given the number of war veterans - particularly Vietnam veterans - who stress their inability to factually describe the horror of war. Here then the Morse code works as a metaphor for an inability to talk about war which is shared by combatants and non-combatants alike, although they share this inarticulacy for two radically different reasons.

Moreover, and regardless of whether or not it evolved out of soldiers and eighteenth century hospitals, the wilful inarticulacy of “Scum of the Earth” suggests that it can also be interpreted as being unable to speak about history itself. In relation to the embedded text, there is also a very nice irony that further complements the piece’s approach to history. If one chooses to translate the Morse code into English one will have a text that will then be subject to the vagaries of interpretation, particularly if that virtual text is in any way figurative. Someone who would go to the trouble of translating the code in order to arrive at a final text would surely become aware in the process that “Scum of the Earth” is in process. The meaning of the text is not the final element in the piece as though “Scum of the Earth” were a riddle, or jigsaw, solved by rendering it in the finality of verbal language. The embedded text is a part of the process of the piece, but an important part because it illustrates that a verbal element in the work is a subordinate component to its audio-visual resonance which grows exponentially as a result of submerging this verbal element. Also, given that Phelan’s piece is looped, there is a multi-faceted movement away from narrative closure. How then could the meaning of the embedded text be fixed historically? For example, the American Constitution - a document designed to be literal and comprehensible in every sense of the word - states that every citizen has the right “to bear arms.” This clause, logical in an era of pioneering expansion across vast tracts of unchartered territory, seems today resonant with the fate of the native American Indians and positively sinister in the wake of Columbine. Similarly, what narrative the embedded text of “Scum of the Earth” might throw up today, could be rendered alien by the cultural permutations of to-morrow. In this light, Phelan’s work is a valuable cultural artefact precisely because it signifies in supple and flexible terms.

To conclude, Jean-François Lyotard writes that “genres of discourse supply rules for linking together heterogeneous phrases, rules that are proper for attaining certain goals: to know, to teach, to be just, to seduce, to justify, to evaluate, to rouse emotion, to over-see. . .” Narrative is one such “genre of discourse” and the narrative catalogue essay designed to accompany another, radically different genre runs the risk of “wronging possible phrases which remain unactualised.” Lyotard, drawing attention to multiplicity of language and phrase asserts that it is necessary now to

"convince the reader that thought, cognition, ethics, politics, history or being, depending on the case, are in play when one phrase is linked onto another. To refute the prejudice anchored in the reader by centuries of humanism and of “human sciences” that there is “man,” that there is “language,” that the former makes use of the latter for his own ends, and that if he does not succeed in attaining these ends, it is for want of good control over language by means of a “better” language. To defend and illustrate philosophy in its differend […] with the genre of academic discourse (mastery). By showing that the linking of one phrase onto another is problematic and that this problem is the problem of politics, to set up a philosophical politics apart from the politics of “intellectuals” and of politicians. To bear witness to the differend."

The differend cannot be constituted through a better language, or for want of a better language. It remains as differend - as supplement - as the phrase that resists. Perhaps it can be a non-verbal phrase, insisting that something remains at stake which cannot be mastered by academic language?

Accordingly, this essay will not - because it cannot - finally exert the mastery of the genre of academic discourse over “Scum of the Earth”. It would effectively wrong the audio-visual regimens or genres whose possible phrases remain unactualised; it would represent it in the forked tongue of a criticism that might amputate its limbs for the sake of distorted definition; all the while the figure would be driving impassioned figures into a pillow of dissimulation. “Scum of the Earth” speaks for itself; it speaks of its inability to communicate verbally, and perhaps it indicates an unwillingness to have a silent history of unspeakable suffering spoken in the wrong, inadequate words. The paradox is that a recounting of the historical genesis of this piece must be undertaken in verbal terms in order to legitimate arriving at that conclusion, temporarily, and then find it subject to immediate re-evaluation. As Roland Barthes noted, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination,” and where “Scum of the Earth” may come from, says nothing of where it might take us, emotionally and historically. Again, and doubtlessly again and again, when faced with speaking the tongue of “Scum,” I end as I began: speechless.

Works cited:

-Francis Barker, 1642: Literature and Power in the Seventeenth Century (University of Essex Press, 1981)
-Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” trans. Stephen Heath, from Image-Music-Text (Collins, 1980)
-Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den

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