Fillip 1 — Summer 2005

John Massey, <em>As the Hammer Strikes</em> (1982), 3 channel video projection

As the Hammer Strikes
Marina Roy

A picture is conjured up which seems to fix the sense unambiguously. The actual use, compared with that suggested by the picture, seems like something muddied… In the actual use of expressions we make detours, we go by side-roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed. ‘While I was speaking to him I did not know what was going on in his head.’ In saying this, one is not thinking of brain-processes, but of thought-processes. The picture should be taken seriously. We should really like to see into his head… we have a vivid picture—and that use, apparently contradicting the picture, which expresses the psychical. —Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 1

The title of John Massey’s three-part film As the Hammer Strikes is puzzling. 2 It has something of an historical avant-garde ring to it. But upon viewing the film a couple of times, one begins to decipher the metaphorical use of the tool as it relates to the building of a common language, and to the way events, things, and words leave their stamp on memory. Stylistically and narratively, the film seems to operate through a theory of language laid out by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations.

According to Wittgenstein, language is always practical. It is intended to do something. Language is a social convention and the meaning of words are determined by their use in language, hence the constantly shifting nature of the meaning of words as such. For Wittgenstein language is like a box full of tools: language is the use; it is something that we share in common; it is what we use to convey information as it relates to public life and the external world. According to Wittgenstein, there is not much sense in the idea of a “private language.” Anything that is to be known as a language must be applicable to the external world and to individual experiences as it relates to a life in common: “An ‘inner process’ stands in need of outward criteria.” 3 Language originates and exists in a social context. Memory and past experience may be particular to each individual but we are able to communicate in the way we do, despite cultural and physical differences, because of our common capacity for memory, feeling, and linguistic acquisition, and our inherently social nature.

According to Wittgenstein we simply cannot get inside another person’s mind, and thus we can never demonstrate that person’s intent. The important thing to consider is not the ability to see into someone, but rather the capacity to see what is public. Both seeing into someone as well as seeing what is public is a fantasy that John Massey realizes visually in As the Hammer Strikes. In attempting to represent what might be going on in another’s mind, Massey’s film comes close to some of Wittgenstein’s ideas about language as something inherently public. Another important aspect of Massey’s work is its relation to documentary practices—to the fictional reconstruction of meaning via the recording of real-life events.

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Image: John Massey, As the Hammer Strikes (1982), 3 channel video projection

About the Author

Marina Roy is a Vancouver-based artist and writer whose work explores the intersection between language and visual art. Her work has investigated contemporary art’s discursive relationship to art history, popular culture, and psychoanalytic theory.

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