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Presupposition and “Occupy facebook with art”

In addition to curating the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s Facebook page, I have my own account for connecting with friends. Recently I’ve seen several posts from a movement to “occupy facebook with art”. The following quote is part of a post I saw this morning.

The idea is to fill Facebook with art, breaking the monotony of the usual sorts of posts (you know what those are!). Whoever likes this post will receive an artist assignment and has to show pieces by that artist with this text.

The quote, versions of which are repeated in many of these “occupy” postings, makes a distinction between “art” and “the monotony of the usual”. What is interesting to me about this is a suggested definition of art that includes upper class high culture – especially painting – while excluding other cultural expressions. The suggestion comes as what linguists and philosophers call presupposition, and it reminds me of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work on distinction.

Presupposition is a linguistic phenomenon whereby certain information is marked as taken for granted rather than directly asserted. (This entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, written by David Beaver and Bart Geurts, explains major philosophical and linguistic theories of presupposition.) Whenever we use language, we assume that some things are true and that our hearer or reader knows them to be true, so that those facts need not be asserted. Some presupposition (sometimes called conventional or semantic presupposition) are marked by features of an utterance. For example, definite descriptions, such as English noun phrases with the definite article the, show a presupposition that the named thing exists; aspectual verbs such as stop presuppose that an action occurred.

  • Utterance: “I saw the cat.”
    • Presupposition: There is a (specific) cat that is relevant to this conversation.
  • Utterance: “When did you stop beating your children?”
    • Presupposition: You beat your children.

Other presuppositions (sometimes called pragmatic or conversational presuppositions) involve assumptions or other ideas that are normally or conventionally shared by participants in communication. This conversational “common ground” might not be marked in an utterance. In either case, the presupposed information is not asserted; it is not offered as new information, but assumed to be already known.

The quote above asserts that “art” is a “break” from typical Facebook content. The presupposition is that “art” is a bounded category: some things are “art”, and the things that usually appear on Facebook are not “art”.


“This emptying out of interiority, to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art. Wrestling is an immediate pantomime; infinitely more efficient than the dramatic pantomime, for the wrestler’s gesture needs no anecdote, no decor, in short no transference in order to appear true.” Roland Barthes. 1972. “The World of Wresting” in Mythologies.

I am not anxious for less Caravaggio and more cat videos, but I am wary of the presumption that only one of these is art.