a residual, Vasıf Kortun

narrator Vasıf Kortun
term a residual
published 8 January 2017, Istanbul, Turkey
affiliated institution SALT

Note: The following text is a transcription of Vasıf Kortun’s contribution to the seminar on Other Institutionality.


Operating a non-capitalist institution managed by different forms of regulations in a society today, I’m constantly thinking about how can we help it. How our production is measured and who has the authority to decide? On whose behalf are those decisions made?


How to make decisions, when the public does not have an → agency, and who claims that agency. It’s not me who can tell what institutions and museums should do. Do they have an invaluable right to keep on existing ad-infinitum no matter what they do? My questions are not at all institution centred. And it’s not a question about survival or preparing for hard times. It’s about curiosity and a state of not knowing and being → fragile. Our situation resulted in constantly performing and making ourselves available to the present. Yet I can also be under the lights and be a representative, and not necessarily an urgent one.


This kind of constrictive thinking syncs in a place and time in which the institution starts to prefer to operate in a perfunctory way. Its interests leave little possibility for an institution to let itself be transformed by the activities it commits to. If institutional time is not only present time, how do we tell stories in the present? Recognising that the institutional opacity could also be registered as a sign of a retreat from the public, and we can no longer do certain things the way we did four years ago, we had to move our activities away from the spotlight. It is the way we have been operating at SALT recently. Having a mental construct of an institution as a sturdy and steady distribution of functions of research output, similar to a monastery and church, the light and the dark. Which is the fundamental question of → constituents within that symmetry?


What can stay hidden in what is opaque from the public? How long should it stay invisible and protected from public scrutiny? Should it absorb the urgent necessity of that which is in the opaque condition? It has to do with what is visible in the light, and if it’s a concession, what form of a concession it may be. However, we should not be disgraceful, we are not to be ashamed of shame though fermenting away from the threatening gaze of The Order. Rather our question is how the programmes that we have pursued in the shade come back to us, and how are we considered? Like any privately funded public service institution, we are in a paradox. Those who fund us are not those to whom we are accountable. Furthermore, those whom you take care of are not sufficiently equipped to impact those who fund us. Within the public domain the situation is more opaque, even if the mechanisms are quite similar. Both operate in a field where they have no public endorsement and abide by the particulars of instant assessment, where short-term efficiency changes priorities and attends to the moments in which they operate.


The tension between oppositional ideas and models of historical institutions, contemporary capitalism and ideas of what public good is are not resolved. How do we become in line with the public? The point is not to interpret the world and present it as a kind of commodity, but to be a part of it. We need to accept the consequences of this co-ownership and also be a part of it. I doubt that the major question is about private or public initiatives. As long as the overwhelming concept is about the receiver and audience, a viewer or a visitor, who lacks the capacity and tools to articulate his/her desires.


This absence of a reciprocal transmission between an institution and its outside is constantly in need of addressing. What remains outside doesn’t have a place for the desire to be recognised, unless it’s invited to perform in the image of itself for a designated time. Seamless spaces are offered between the customer and the provider in the charade of market-tested projects. As the possible public is extracted from the equation and replaced by the processes of managerial quantification, still our “bench-mark” is not media coverage, it is not a head count, or aggregated → data analysis.


You will observe and claim that the programme can be assessed in its complexity at the moment of its actualisation. This is not a murky relativism that makes the most of each subjectivity just because it exists. It is all about stimulating and undisciplined curiosity. I want to speak very briefly about a concept to reflect back on our practice. The hardest thing is to know what you are from behind your desk and behind the entrance door of the institution. With the normalised, naturalised capacity of such a formation, counter-reformation, through colleagues, our sense of self-righteousness, our clinging to narratives in which we find ourselves a place carrying a great tradition of practice, and also the burden of history. I’m curious to figure out what accumulates outside our self-described authority. The outside of the conditions we constantly suppress. At the same time, despite all odds, our attendance has been quite amazing, and for some reason it is increasing each year since we opened. We were recently analysed by an independent research company on the so-called social return on the investment. The results were phenomenally good. And don’t ask me what this all means. I’ve been told it is apparently absolutely great, yet the question became why that it is. Which → translates into really wrong ideas about funding and the capitalisation of our work. The press and social media once or twice a year write about us in a long essay formats, which is a great icing on the cake, yet what is that we cannot measure?


Is that something an institution can question? Perhaps we are not alone in the world? Did our ideas have greater effect than expected? Have we touched those we never expected? We may be a part of the environments we are hardly aware of. Our users know us yet benefit from things we don’t even think we are offering. Their accumulations of knowledge, accumulations of sense and curiosity – we are clearly and certainly unable to quantify most of these experiences. So today I’m not interested in the big picture. Or about professional to professional activity.


Looking for this thing that I cannot name, I stumbled on the idea of “a residual”, not “the residual” yet “a residual”. Planning to pick up on an amorphous idea, the idea of a residual risk, that can be thought as a negligible error. That is used in mathematics, the line between an observation and a computation, or as a line between two different observations. A negligible differential. The kind of differential that does not affect the outcome, and is not computable, so it can’t be foreseen. So this variance is often expected and also disregarded. It escapes evaluation because it’s negligible, hence a residual is overlooked by an assessment methodology and ignored by the narrative machinery. So when I started to seek other uses of residual, my ignorance hit me. How could I forget Raymond Williams and his use of residual in the book Marxism and Literature (1977)? For him a residual is about the complex layering and the process of sedimentation of culture as it faces change. So in this short essay he uses, rather broadly, with two other terms, the concepts of “the emergent” and “the dominant”. Dominant being what it is referred to as the understandings embodied in the majority of society, such as heterosexual normativity. According to Williams, the dominant could embody aspects of a residual, that is elements of the dominant that are normalised and projected on to → the contemporary. Let us not mistake Williams’ residual with heritage. A residual is harder to place. It is not merely a question of language. A residual can continue to linger on, because it can be neglected or even ignored. In which case a residual could be marginal. A residual in Williams’ view is a range of beliefs and customs that look quite antediluvian. Often coming from a set of different social formations, political and religious orientations, life positions and ideologies. The social conditions may not be around any longer. The authority may be removed, yet a residual lingers through. They may be a bit ancient, and may be coming from history. Yet a residual has a very particular trait of staying through change. I don’t intend to level the potential of the concept.


The difference between a residual and heritage are obvious. Heritage can be turned into an apparatus or an ideological weapon which can become an instrument of oppression, whereas a residual escapes the capacity to harm in the same way. You may not take this seriously. What good is it then, if you cannot name it and turn it into a tool, yet this may be precisely the attitude that I hope to offer here. According to Williams, a residual is the influence old cultural practices, consciously or unconsciously, have when existing in a contemporary moment. Which is the fundamental difference between a residual and the archaic. Our take is abundant and silenced, while the antic has an object status. A residual may be active in the shaping of things without being dominant. I would say that a residual has an effect on the notion of the private and public. Not in terms of ownership of space, yet in terms of what could be retained from the public in formal practices. So the dominant culture can’t do anything about this, whether it approves or not.


Trying to figure out different uses of the term in different fields, I came upon a use that satisfied me quite a bit; in chemistry the residue is what remains after a chemical process. Like the substance that remains on the surface, in a container, or in a test tube that cannot be removed easily. So the term itself comes from the Latin residuum (“a remainder”). Which refers to its qualities not only as a reminder yet also as what is left behind. There’s obviously a difference between what remains and residue, which is what is left behind, which comes from residēre.


I have no intention to engage in this kind of exotic self-serving discussion about the technology, nor to define borders so I can present an alternative to these borders. The critical thinking here is the difference of the → agency between residues which remain and residēre, which is what is left behind. This is the difference between what Raymond Williams understands as emotional culture and a cultural residue. Williams understands a residual as not only a remainder, but as always throwing itself further. It’s not left behind. Continuing, if I get back to mathematics and sum it up, a residual is the difference between the measured and predicted values of some quantity. To understand a residual as you know it, it can be thought of as a negligible problem. Hence a residual is overlooked by assessment methodologies and ignored by narrative machines.


I am much more interested in the apparent inconsequentiality of a residual. You may say it is inconsequential, yet it is not incidental. Not being tangible and limited to language alone, a residual exists in the relationship between subjects and time. It refers both to the weakness of the institution and to its narrative and singularity. So the question is how to make a conversation that turns and returns, each time building consciously towards a residual, that is not embedded in the situation, yet it uses the culture of doing things. One cannot programme a residual. The question is how can we produce registers that can be attuned to its recognition.