Look it Up (excerpt)

By Adam Phillips, 2010

The installations in The Concise Dictionary of Dress, like the definitions of the key words, serve to loosen, or to set off in several directions, the issues worth advancing, which are very much to do with the idolatry of words and the advertising of dress (dress advertises the body, definitions pay tribute to the word). If imagery cannot be trusted – and dictionaries are trustworthy or they are nothing – and images (unlike words?) are ‘always presumed to be proposing something contestable and controversial’ (unlike dictionaries?), then words and images, words and material, are bound to set each other off. Whether we are being persuaded or seduced – persuaded because of ourselves, or persuaded in spite of ourselves – a dictionary of language and installation plays off information against evocation, getting it right against the gorgeous eccentricity of personal association. The difference between what you are told and what it makes you think, between what you see and what occurs to you; between what makes sense and what remains as undefined, unclear, indeterminate.

The psychoanalyst Ralph Greenson once suggested that it was better in the old days when little boys were dressed up as little girls to begin with, because at least it acknowledged that boys start by identifying with their mothers. The boy’s first self-fashioning is as a boy-girl. These mothers who dressed their boys in dresses were not necessarily foisting a definition on their children, ‘feminising’ them, but acknowledging or co-operating with their self-definition. Greenson’s paper, Disidentifying from Mother, made the simple point that the boy can only properly disidentify from his mother if he has first wholeheartedly both identified with her and been allowed to. The way the child dressed, or rather, the way the child was dressed, made this real.This, I think, is as much a point about definition as it is about gender; that just as you can only disidentify after you have identified – you can only be at all different by first being as much alike as possible – you can only undefine (or redefine) after you have defined (and there are, it is perhaps worth adding, the definitions born of attention, and the definitions born of inattention; a child is always the recipient of both, as is a word). A dictionary is not so much a text but a pre-text; its definitions are not orders or prescriptions but guidelines, jumping-off points. After all, what would it be like to talk or write like a dictionary?

In collaboration with dress curator Judith Clark, Adam Phillips is the psychoanalyst and writer who created The Concise Dictionary of Dress. This is an excerpt from his essay for the project catalogue, published by Violette Editions in association with Artangel.