Date of Publishing:
February 23, 2018

1904 © Cajal Institute

Semantics of Dizziness

Jarosław Lubiak

I. Dizziness is my name

In the video Dizziness Is My Name by Ruth Anderwald and Leonhard Grond (2016), a refrain-like phrase can be heard over and over again: “Dizziness is my name… I am a pendulum without rope and gravity… my gravity is movement…”. And then :  “… here is what I, Dizziness, have to offer to you … confusion guided by clear sense of purpose … leave shattered what was lost… hold on to our purpose and hold on to hope."

The poetics used in the video are extraordinary, possibly because Ruth and Leonhard followed metaphorisation as the main method used in their research. It is, by the way, strictly connected with the phenomenon under analysis.

The first step in this process of metaphorisation is to give dizziness the status of a proper name. This is a tremendous shift. Ruth and Leonard suggest that dizziness is not a concept. It is as if though they were saying: You shall never understand it. At best, you can encounter it. You can find its infinite faces, look inside them, listen to them, but never will you have the privilege of understanding.

Dizziness is the name of what disrupts communication, understanding, comprehension. It suspends beyond all certainty. Hence dizziness is not a notion as it gets in the way of comprehending.

Ruth and Leonhard have used prosopopoeia in their film to give Dizziness a voice. It speaks to us in a female voice, though we are not certain whether it is a woman, or even a person, for that matter.

Dizziness speaks to us in the video. In other situations, it sends us signs, signals, imposes its symptoms. It reveals its images to us at the exhibition, some of its countless faces. It reveals them by its own proper name while hiding behind it.

II. The semantics of the proper name

The semantics of the proper name have always been troublesome from the point of view of the theory of meaning. The dispute revolving around the main question, i.e. “Do proper names have sense?” can always, as John Searle claims, be boiled down to two options. The first one assumes that names have no sense but are a reference only – they denote but do not connote. According to the second option, names do have a sense and the reference appears contingently.[1] It may be assumed that the functioning of a proper name is based on the irresolvable nature of the following contradiction: a proper name carries a deep sense and, at the same time, it acts by means of surface effects of references.

Ruth and Leonhard strengthen this undecidability. By giving dizziness the status of a proper name, they assign the effects of this name to the phenomenon.

Searl analyses (though avoiding to resolve the dispute between the sense and the reference) the principles on which a proper name functions. First of all, a proper name refers to a single object, not needing to define it or assigning any predicates to it. “But proper names refer without so far raising the issue of what the object is.”[2]

Supplementing this kind of logical deliberations on psychoanalytical consequences, Jacques Lacan stressed that a proper name is used, first and foremost, to cover up a shortcoming, i.e. such as the impossibility to identify an object. A proper name makes it possible to avoid the question about what is an object in a situation when it is impossible to answer such a question. At the same time, it includes the object, whose full identification is impossible, into a symbolic system so as to assign effects of significance to it.

Since a proper name is related to a lack, it is a “moveable function”[3]. It is easy to trigger a whole series of shifts with its help. Ruth and Leonhard set a whole chain of synonyms in motion with dizziness floating around in between: instability, staggering, vertigo, imbalance, uncertainty, confusion, disorientation, extravagation, errancy, falling, crisis, emergence, rising, creating.

Dizziness is not a name for any of these, however it refers to each one, if only for a moment, before it moves on in its uncertain motion.

III. Confusion in translation – the affinity of proper names

One of the key traits that Lacan assigned to proper names is their untranslatability.[4] It indicates a single object but it is not to be a word which could be exchanged for a different one. We grappled with this impossibility when preparing the presentation at U-jazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art.

The confusion is present from the very beginning. We have to return the status of words to names so as to shed more light on the mechanics of this confusion. Ruth and Leonhard are using the German term Taumel and the English word dizziness, though the meanings of these two are not identical. The Polish translation enforces the differences even more. The most obvious Polish equivalent would be zawrót głowy that is vertigo which, however, conveys only one of the senses contained in both the English and German words. Therefore rozchwianie meaning instability or staggering would be much closer (though now the medical connotation is lost). Furthermore, one of the key meanings of Taumel is gone from both Polish and English equivalents. At the same time, it is a meaning which the Grimm brothers’ dictionary offers as the first and fundamental one: the literal circular movement to and fro, with a later addition: a dizziness of the head, an instability and a more metaphorical mental confusion.  Whilst both the Polish and English terms denote the state only, Taumel indicates a specific type of movement, a staggering or rather staggering combined with moving in circles. At the same time, it describes the state resulting from such movement – which is the key element of this entire project. As there is no Polish equivalent that would convey the combination of movement in circles with instability, when translating the title of the exhibition - Taumel. Navigieren im Unbekannten ('Dizziness. Navigating the Unknown') – we decided to accentuate the moment which is shared by the movement in circles and the state to which this can lead, i.e. a moment which triggers reaction and enforces action. Hence the Polish Utrata równowagi meaning actually 'The Loss of Balance'.

We could say that the process of translating the title of the exhibition was one of assigning a proper name to the show. Taumel, Dizziness, Utrata równowagi – the relationship between the names is based on the rule of close affinity but not identity.

IV. Utrata równowagi in the programme of U-jazdowski

The exhibition at U-jazdowski is also a different object from the one presented at Kunstahaus Graz. It takes up a different space and creates a different sort of experience. Different works have been added here (Robakowski, Delman). The relations among the artworks have also been differently structured. Thus the new proper name is no coincidence. Just as at the Kunsthaus Graz, it is a meeting with something that evades comprehension, and which requires naming.

The mechanism of metaphorisation, which is so important in the artistic research of Ruth and Leonard, has found its continuation at the exhibition. While the video Dizziness Is My Name was a prosopopoeia in the literal sense, the show is also one – but much more metaphorically so. It has given a voice to instability, it has portrayed it with the use of different means of the visual arts. It has also been an attempt at reflecting on the possibilities of their use.

For the curators, the exhibition Utrata równowagi has been an experiment in a research project, which is quite exceptional in comparison to other artistic research endeavours which so popular in the area of contemporary art in recent years. To my mind, its uniqueness lies in the type of methodology used, in which the never-ending metaphorisation stemmed from the most far-fetching consequences of the fact the word Taumel is used to denote motion, first and foremost. Moving is the principal rule of the project.

In the U-jazdowski programme, Utrata równowagi could be seen as a counterpoint to Dust, Public Spirits and Gotong Royong: Things We Do Together. In all the three endeavours, the key intention was to introduce a non-European point of view on the most burning issues regarding contemporary times, thus creating conditions for a different type of thinking.

Ruth and Leonhard’s project offers the possibility of a different type of thinking from inside of the European tradition by introducing a radical shift. And this is its true stake.

V. The stake of the exhibition: A different rationality

The key to the research contained in the word Taumel lies in the combination of movement and its effects, the semantic intertwining of staggering with instability which sets off metaphorisation. At first glance, it looks like an arrangement of metaphors, as it is difficult to find any other justification for this surprising movement from the neurology of the brain, the psychology of reception, to the philosophy of compossibility, anthropology of social rituals, or the analysis of political destabilisation and economic instability and, further, to the artistic explorations of losing and recovering balance, both in the physical and psychological sense. In any other discipline, it would mean extreme methodological  flippancy, but in the artistic research by Anderwald and Grond, the fusion of the research method with the subject of the research and the researching subject by means of the metaphorisation movements is what makes the project such a forceful one.

And force is necessary, as the stake of the project is very high. It develops and supplements the movement taking place in the European (or, perhaps, continental) thought, in particular in the philosophy of Catherine Malabou. She proposes a shift that could be called the neurologisation of reason, in which the brain and its plasticity can serve as the basis for the materialistic theory of thinking. It lets her reject the Enlightenment or classical rationality, which was key to constructing our societies, and which has fallen into an undoubtful state of crisis.

In one of her recent books on the philosophy of Kant,[5] Malabou postulated the creation of “a different rationality:” “This rationality goes beyond the critique of reason and refuses to legitimate thinking simply on the grounds of the exposition of its intrinsic conditions of possibility: philosophical discourse can no longer result from the consciousness of laws, nor can concepts or judgments be founded on the ‘spontaneity of thinking.’ Instead, it is a matter of understanding from which non-conscious, not necessarily human and not programmed, formative instances thinking derives. The philosophical turn from the twentieth to the twenty-first century is thus notable for the in-depth search for the origin of thinking outside of consciousness and will.”[6]

Ruth and Leonhard pose a question about “the origins of thinking outside of consciousness and will” or, more precisely, they are involved in a radical search for a different origin. It could be said that they are going further than Malabou, not stopping at the neurology of the brain – this privileged thinking organ. They seek the sources of thinking in the vestibular system, or sense of balance and orientation. This specific sense which is sensitive to linear and angular acceleration, is one which, at the same time, helps us keep in relation with the ground. Obviously, it is interlinked with the sense of sight and the entire nervous system – it would be impossible to maintain balance without this cooperation.

Nevertheless, it is the physiology of vestibular system (or the inner ear), and the studies of its disorders, which served as the starting point for the entire project carried out by Ruth and Leonhard. Starting off with the disorders of the labyrinth and through the process of metaphorisation, the artists arrived at the question about the potential of instability in contemporary reality. The physiology of balance opens up the possibility of a philosophy of orienting oneself in a situation when the ground slips from under one’s feet.

When dizziness tells us in the video that it is free from gravity – it could be said that the statement serves as a call for thinking which is not be based on whatever support or foundation, but one which could refer to the possibility of the infinitely erroneous, staggering and instable movement.

A different thinking will allow for a different rationality.


Fig.1, Drawing of the pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex, 1904, © Cajal Institute

[1] John R. Searle, "Proper Names", in: Mind, New Series, Vol. 67, No. 266 (1958), 169.

[2] Ibidem, 172.

[3] Russell Grigg, On the Proper Name as the Signifier in Its Pure State, in:“UMBR(a)”, 1, Identity / Identification (1998), 77.

[4] Ibidem, 76.

[5] Cf. Catherine Malabou, Avant demain. Épigenèse et rationalité (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2014).

[6] Catherine Malabou, Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality, transl. Carolyn Shread (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), 34.