PRINT February 1974

Victor Burgin: Language and Perception

VICTOR BURGIN’S CONCERN WITH the relation between our use of language and the perception of objects can be traced to his early projects. These consist of written instructions for the use of physical media as simple analogies (or signs) for types of mental acts, and their application to physical situations. In Photopath, 1969, for example, an area of floorboards was photographed and printed to full size. The prints were then placed over the area they depicted and stapled down. This congruence between the photographic image and the floorboards it covered suggested that the image had somehow been slipped between our direct perception of the object, in this sense, the presence of the image. Both drew attention to the floorboards below and also confined what was attended to: it forced one to reflect on their visible appearance as well as the fact that this act of attention excluded the experience of any other qualities they might possess. In Burgin’s later work, this use of physical media was substituted for by the more viable form of natural language. One of the practical reasons for this change was that it enabled him to explore the structure of more complex perceptions.

It is through this capacity we have to direct our perceptions that the subjective style of Burgin’s work may be defined. In these terms, any act of perception is also seen as discriminative, as presenting a distinct context within which the immediate experience of an object is encountered. In Burgin’s linguistic projects these acts of perception are presented in the form of performative utterances (e.g., look at the sky).1 In his use of these utterances, however, they are completely framed in universal terms (e.g., any object directly known to you at the present moment toward which any bodily act is directed). As Russell has pointed out, universal terms in denoting nothing in particular seem to exist as timeless entities apart from the contingent world. In this form these performative utterances can be seen to function as pure ideas without content, or, as Burgin has put it, open categories that can be used to enclose (or articulate) our perception of particular objects. From these individual acts of perception more complex perceptions are then constructed. In his early structures (those that concern our perception of simple physical objects) the conditions for isolating an external event are used as the basis for ordering further acts of perception. From this starting point, a succession of perceptual acts are then connected (or interwoven) to form a distinct perceptual attitude toward the world.

In their general form, Burgin’s perceptual constructs make it possible to map our experience of any object or event. They display the connections that can subsist between different acts of perception and how these connections can determine the meaning we ascribe to our experience of objects. A useful analogy in revealing how these connections operate is Saussure’s description of language as a system of pure values: any complex of signs is seen as a “state of affairs” in which their value (or meaning) is determined by the relations they contract with the signs around them.2 (To illustrate this notion of language as a system of values, it is compared to a game of chess in which the rearrangement or elimination of any single term also modifies the values of all the other terms.) In the same way, the significance (or meaning) of any act of perception may be seen to be determined by how it is connected to other perceptions or ideas.

A straightforward reading of Burgin’s projects will show some of the ways in which these connections can determine the perceptual meaning we ascribe to objects. First, they bring to light the misconception that the description of the physical properties of an object can be neutral, or that these properties simply add up to an accumulative representation of an object. What Burgin’s perceptual structures make evident is precisely how our emphasis or choice of these facts can also present widely different perceptual attitudes toward the world. (While this may seem obvious enough, it must surely account for the different kinds of significance that are imputed to formal changes in art like Minimalism.) Further, his structures show how individual perceptions can be defined through their connection with ideas (or mental concepts). Consider, for example, the definition of a form of emotional conduct. In a simplistic sense, it might be defined by linking it to an external object. Even supposing the external circumstances of an emotion can be defined, it is unlikely to be particularly revealing; for between an emotion and its purported object there is likely to be a complex of qualifying ideas that equally determine the nature of such a response. If this condition is accepted and as Burgin’s structures show, a form of emotional conduct might be more appropriately defined through its relation to an ideology.

To understand the area of cognition in art Burgin’s approach clarifies, it is important to consider its epistemic function and limits. By this, I mean its practical use in relation to our understanding of works of art as well as cultural objects. At one extreme this brings into focus the traditional concern of artists with physical objects. It is obviously impossible to consider such activity in any comprehensive form, but at the risk of oversimplification, some general observations should serve to show how they involve each other. Roughly described from a modernist standpoint, painting and sculpture can be seen as a concern with the ordering or the expression of our felt responses in relation to sense objects. In an abstract sense, this involves as well the giving of form to particular modalities of feeling. It has been validly argued that the presentation of such phenomena is unique to these art forms, and also involves the experience of the most immediate circumstances of our lives. Within some context of intention, it seems unlikely that this area of concern could be pursued in anything but an empirical manner. Accepting this state of affairs, it should also be evident that how we form these intentions (whether they are made explicit as a form of language within an artwork or not), and how we direct our perceptions in relation to physical objects, is largely dependent on our use of conventional concepts from natural language. By presenting a method which virtually reverses the way we visually employ these concepts to structure our perceptions of physical phenomena, Burgin’s work brings into serious focus how we ascribe perceptual meaning to such objects (even though their development is empirical and intuitive). But over and above this concern with the descriptive use of language, the symbolic value or extrinsic significance we ascribe to forms of art is determined by the way they relate to social ideologies. As Burgin emphasizes, the intersubjective attitudes or norms of conduct which have become institutionalized are involved. The strange paradox about these norms of conduct is that unlike scientific laws, their use provides no guarantee they are understood. It is quite possible to act according to them, or even to violently oppose them, while remaining unaware as to how they operate or are formed.3 By dealing with these norms of conduct as perceptual constructs, and not as logical or theoretical problems which have been rejected by linguistic philosophers as senseless,4 Burgin has extended the instrumentality of his work as a means for decoding how they operate, and how they involve our decisions to act.

Significantly, the form of Burgin’s constructs show that in practice normative concepts have little to do with ideals about truth and falsity. If this appears to lead one back to the apparent arbitrariness idealists want to surmount, it is because there seems to be some confusion about how such concepts function. As already suggested, this confusion arises mainly from the attempt to establish their meaning in simple veridical terms. When approached in this form, the meaning of such concepts readily collapses into questions about their veracity or significance as subjective assertions that have no basis in the world of fact. Burgin’s constructs, on the other hand, return one to the idea that normative decisions are governed by the pragmatic choices that people decide to make in conducting themselves within a certain context, but with a difference. The form of his constructs makes it possible to establish how the meaning of such concepts becomes specific through the perceptions or ideas that surround them. In this form it becomes possible to consider the value of any normative decision not through any direct or vertical identity it has with a concrete fact, but through its contingent relations with other corroborating ideas that may include our perception of concrete facts.

In the work IV. 2., 1972, a conception of social conduct (mores) together with its recognizable limits is identified. If one now moves to the extrapolations in section VIII, the types of relevant feelings (bodily sensations, emotions, moods) that might be experienced are documented. If one next traces their possible origin (section IX) by going backward, they will be seen to be defined by their connection with acts performed by oneself or others (sections VI, V) that have been recalled or evinced through the evidence provided by the forms of perception (section IV), and that are categorized by the restrictive concepts provided (section III), that define types of conduct, behavior or actions (section II) within the given context of social conduct (section I). While if one traces them forward through section IX, they are further framed by manifestations of moral behavior and/or personal propensities (section X) that are directed by these types of feeling; and by the observable inner states of others (section XI) and the conflicts that may result between personal and interpersonal acts (section XVI). From this they are also framed by the projected courses of action or considerations that might follow with respect to the original social state of affairs (sections XVII–XX). From this simplified description which bypasses the complexity and subtlety of Burgin’s work, some idea of how intimately the meaning of any single concept is bound up with that of every other concept should become evident.5

Burgin has suggested “that following long obsessions with evolutions in autonomous art, we might profitably contemplate its devolution.” In a period where fine art seems to be directed by the wholesale formation of dogma, and public self-assertion, his work offers the welcome possibility of overhauling our understanding of its processes and function.

Roelof Louw



1. Sentences that are closer in form to exclamations or commands than statements.

2. “The first thing that strikes us when we study the facts of language is that their succession in time does not exist insofar as the speaker is concerned. He is confronted with a state.” Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, New York, 1959. (One of the important, aspects of Burgin’s work is the inclusive way it deals with time, memory, etc.). My intention here is not to become involved in theoretical arguments, but simply to point out certain problems of meaning.

3. One of the functions of Readymades has been to create a condition of alienation within art which draws attention to its hidden conventions. But its strategic function is usually negative and in that sense limited; it seldom leaves us any the wiser about how or why they were formed.

4. Fascist assertions, for example, usually operate by reducing the meaning of a form of conduct to an isolated condition, and then acclaiming its absolute necessity for us. There is no way of refuting such assertions on logical grounds, so that one is left in the untenable position of either conforming to them, or of opposing them because their virtue has been misunderstood. However, if a form of conduct is approached as a perceptual construct, then at least its meaning can be shown to be limited or empty, etc.

5. Selected publications of Burgin’s are: “Situational Aesthetics,” Studio International, October, 1969; “Thanks for the Memory,” Architectural Design, August, 1970; “Rules of Thumb,” Studio International, May, 1971; Marginal Note and an interview with Ann Seymour, The New Art Exhibition Catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London, September, 1972. Also, a book, Work and a Commentary, published by Latimer Press (scheduled for December, 1973), which includes an important definition of art in terms of its use in relation to other disciplines.