In a session today on my MA in Social Sculpture, we considered the following three words: Hidden, Ignored, Denied. What do we understand by these words? Not simply in their meaning but in their relationship to one another, to us and to the world around us. As we began to discuss the words, it quickly became apparent that we had different views on their significance, e.g. which was the stronger word, ignored or denied? Was hidden a positive or a negative word?
Initially, I began to think about what hidden means to me, and, in my sketchbook, I wrote down that what is denied to me, I hide, or, to put it another way, I hide it because it is denied to me. So, far from (as someone else said) the word being positive, I started by seeing it as negative. When a thing is hidden, someone suggested, we embrace it, we protect it; much like we would a treasure. Of course I wouldn’t argue with this, we do indeed sometimes hide what we cherish. And as I thought about it, I took the idea of embracing and applied it to the ‘ignored’. I had started by suggesting that we ignore something in the hope that it goes away. The thing ignored and the thing hidden are both external to us (even if they are part of us), but the difference is that while we might embrace a hidden thing, the thing ignored embraces us, it hold us.
I then began to think about ‘denied’. Is ignoring stronger than denial? One girl suggested that ignoring was passive and denial was something much more active, but as I thought about it, I began to see that for me, it was the other way round. Denial was the more passive of the two. To ignore something requires a concerted conscious effort, even if the act of ignoring is brief, the thing ignored remains with us for longer. Denial can be as simple as changing the channel on a television; we might deny time to the news of an atrocity for example. That is different to ignoring it; to ignore the atrocity is to give it space in our minds but not in our mouths.
The difference between ignoring a thing and denying a thing became something very important to me, particularly in relation to my work on The Trees, a project concerned with ‘denial in the landscape of atrocity and suffering’. I thought about ignoring and how when I ignore something, I am in effect denying something in myself. If I (a subject rather than myself) deny time on the television to an atrocity, or a natural disaster like an earthquake, I am in effect, ignoring (or attempting to ignore) my own lack of concern – my apathy, just as a Holocaust denier is not denying the fact of the Holocaust per se, but rather, trying to ignore their own belief that it was no bad thing, that they got what they deserved.
Taking this further (the subjective ‘ignore’ and the objective ‘deny’), I figured that if I have something about me I want to hide, I can ignore it, but with others I have to deny it. To ignore is to be silent, to deny requires words. It’s easy to deny something when talking with another, it is, as I first suggested, a passive action. But to ignore something is almost a physical action, it requires effort and is anything but passive.
I wanted to create some kind of framework for considering how we hide, how we ignore and how we deny, and so I simply asked myself those same questions. How?
How do we hide something? By not talking about it. By not giving shape to the thing we wish to hide. To cover it, to deny it form. How do we ignore something? First we must acknowledge it. It cannot be covered, obfuscated, blurred. Its form must be clear, defined. And what of denial? How do we deny? Again, the thing must be defined in order for us to deny it, but whereas the ignored thing’s form is of itself, the denied form is somehow changed. To deny is to give the thing a different form, to externalise an internal emotion in the guise of something else. For example, returning to the Holocaust denier; he denies the Holocaust so as to ignore his own hatred and prejudice; if it did not happen, he cannot be guilty. The same is true when someone we love is seriously ill. Often we will deny the illness by clothing it in something less serious so as to ignore, as far as we can, the possible (and feared) outcomes that we are considering. We often deny death, but we can never ignore it.
Of course there are different degrees of meaning in every word. There are passive and active ends of a word’s spectrum of meaning amd words themselves occupy different places in other word’s spectrums. Hidden, ignored and denied can all be placed at points on a spectrum of ‘invisibility’. What I have outlined above is not a set of definitive meanings for these three words, but rather a way of exploring words, and arriving at meaning through a process of questioning, such as one might use when observing any other phenomema.