Quickie Book Review Of Arendt’s The Human Condition

August 13, 2017

The summer’s reading was three books by Hannah Arendt. I managed to finish two out of three (OK so I spent a lot of time busy doing nothing), the latest being The Human Condition. The final lines really surprised me. Who doesn’t know that you can skip reading a book by just reading the end? But in this case one would still be left hanging. But I get ahead of myself.

The synopsis (Arendt For Dummies): Hannah is grounded in the western traditional origins of philosophy. The book dwells (relies) on the Greek differentiation of the active life (vita activa) and the contemplative life (vita contemplativa) which the Greeks held to be preferable (she uses Latin and Greek words. I’ll stick with the “english-ized” versions). She spends considerable reader capital on establishing the very nature of the Greeks’ esteem for the contemplative life at the cost of the active life. The active life has three, what we would today call modalities, the conditions under which the active life is, exists , operates or is found. Basic is that of labor, the human activity of struggling to survive with all its necessary weariness, grief, toil and pain (animal laborans). This was eschewed by the Greeks with their preference for the contemplative life (homo sapien). It was what slaves and domestics were for (thus freeing up the household’s manager to pursue the higher form of activity – contemplation). Associated with the human as laborer is the human as maker (homo faber). It is the ingenious, creative, fabricating aspect of action where tools and objects are made to lighten the burden of animal laborans. Lastly is the aspect of speech and action, word and deed. With the Greeks this was the activity to be found in the forum with its discourse and politics. To engage in it the citizen must be free of the activity of the animal laborans (domestic laborer) as well as the homo faber (artisan or craftsman). She spends considerable energy in establishing an understanding of these conditions within the ancient civilization at the heart of western culture. And rightly so for it is unimaginable how the intricacies articulate in terms of individuals, social, cultural and governments up through the Romans, Middle Ages and Renaissance. One curious aspect she points out is the worldliness, or otherworldliness, of these conditions. Surprising as it seems, animal laborans is not of this world for whatever labor produces is consumed, and thus there is nothing to show, nothing left in the world. Ditto for speech and action which may produce change but leave no trace of their “performance”. Homo faber is very worldly, using the things of the world to produce the world with no regard for the “world” (sustainability, depletion, destruction, etc.). In turn, homo faber leaves the world as having been made by man. For Arendt the invention of the telescope (and microscope) turns everything on its head. She references Archimedes great desire to have a stable point by which he could move the world. She feels this point evolves with this invention, resulting with the demise of the priority of the contemplative life and the ascendency of the active life. Now there is a new perspective from a stable point, the point of universal, of objective, the point of view from “out there.” (no longer the contemplative outlook as definitive). To make a long story short, homo faber morphs into science (which can utilize anything to make anything, and doesn’t give a hoot as to repercussions), action and speech migrate to capitalism and the social (do be, do be, do, and put it on your resume, document it please), and the king of the hill becomes animal laborans (with all things measured by and given in terms of survival – of the species as well as the individual as specimen). So what is the surprise ending to her study? The contemplative life (so rudely displaced by Galileo) involved thought, primarily. Thought (contemplation of what matters (no, not Black Lives), events, the nature of things, etc.) had an incredible bearing on the how and why of ancient western civilization. What becomes of thought under the contemporary conditions of the active life? “Thought… is still possible, and no doubt actual, wherever men live under conditions of political freedom. Unfortunately… no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think.” “For if no other test but the experience of being active, no other measure but the extent of sheer activity were to be applied to the various activities within the vita activa, it might well be that thinking as such would surpass them all. Whoever has any experience in this matter will know how right Cato was [no, not OJ’s house guest!] when he said “Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.” And that’s the end of the story, the book. One is left with an experience akin to reading esoteric texts of Chinese, Indian or Japanese classical philosophy.

Polar Ohio Snap Short

March 16, 2017

“I won’t be going to this year’s reunion” he said while taking measured calculated sips. “Might as well be a unicorn convention for all it matters. The only thing they’ll talk about is what doesn’t exist or never happened. All that second hand defense they’ve overheard others using – how it just might be, facts aren’t always so, need to keep an open mind and all – will set me off like an overheated lithium ion battery. I don’t need it. They will keep quiet about Junior beating up on his fiancé. Between cigarette puffs my niece will mention that her college educated daughter will be starting a new job. Unmentioned will be that it is her fourth this year. No need to talk of addiction at a family gathering, that’s only for family! Ang’s never employed grand kid will probably show up with a new baby and some young lady no one’s ever seen to cradle it. All news to the boy’s parents. Right. Children having children I can understand, but parents in the dark? And who pays for the delivery? Trumpcare indeed.” He obviously was concerned, but America wasn’t going his way. “They’ll talk about what’s not and act like what is, but isn’t talked about, is just all perfectly normal, and so not worth the bother. Besides, so much more can be said about what isn’t. I mean, Rumsfeld got a lot of miles out of the unknown, both the known unknown as well as the not known unknown.” Alone with his cup that was growing cold, cut off from those he cared about, “family” was quickly becoming just a memory of how great it once was.

Lord’s Day Snap Short

February 20, 2017

(Roland Barthes was a French thinker whose interest covered a wide variety of sins, from professional wrestling to photography. His partiality to photography is best remembered for his insight on the photograph itself. His unique understanding of the image was of something that had occurred, that was actual at one time, and would never be present again (save for the photographic image). The description bordered on mourning. Photographs described by Barthes as exemplifying this significance easily could be described as incongruous, with the image always inadvertently revealing something not immediately apparent without considered study. In this spirit All The Noose That Is Knot presents vignettes entitled Snap Shorts)

 

Sunday is for shooting. At one time the Sunday country morning was that of bird songs, insect droning, and spontaneous amphibian choral competitions. Before noon the world was a John Cage composition, interspersed with cattle lowing, crows calling, or passing Sunday-go-to-meeting church goers. If the Lord’s Day happened to be fair, the afternoon of the fauna turned mechanized with off road roaring, buzzing and humming – pick ups, ATV’s and motorbikes. But the juke box was never turned on before noon. Today the blue laws are gone, replaced by staccato gunfire, from surrounding compass points, dawn to dusk, with no breaks for lunch or supper. The change began about nine years ago. Words were spoken, and recorded; an embarrassment about “those people”, their guns and religion. In response, like a school student with a new band instrument only too eager to fulfill a request, Sunday became the perfect day to perform, and practice. Now the week’s rehearsal starts after 4 on Thursday from a few isolated virtuosos. Friday and Saturday brings tentative ensemble play. By Sunday, it is practically orchestral with all calibers deployed – single shots and semi-automatic rounds capped by fully automatic flourishes with a few high explosive cannon rounds thrown in to create an 1812 crescendo. True believers make a joyful noise unto the Lord.

Ohio Snap Short

February 3, 2017

(Roland Barthes was a French thinker whose interest covered a wide variety of sins, from professional wrestling to photography. His partiality to photography is best remembered for his insight on the photograph itself. Barthes’ unique understanding of the image was of something that had occurred, that was actual at one time, and would never be present again (save for the photographic residue). The description bordered on mourning. Photographs ascribed significance by Barthes could easily be described as incongruous, with the image always inadvertently revealing something not immediately apparent without considered study. In this spirit All The Noose That Is Knot presents vignettes entitled Snap Shorts)

 

There is nothing sadder than a pick up truck with a snow plow on the front flying down a bright dry highway on a 60 degree day. Even bedded in the barren grass next to a barn, it is the very image of abjection, bearing witness to a work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit somewhat out of sync. Clearing snow was always a sure way to supplement a rural income in Ohio which is witnessing its second “mild” winter (to say the least). It may be good for the wheat, but not so good for those looking to profit from snow covered parking lots and driveways. Temps are above freezing on more days than below. Precipitation, when it has been (and it has been), is mainly in the form of rain, at most a dusting of snow. Cyber illiterate coots recall late January/February as being the coldest time with sledding, ice fishing, and the great blizzard of 78. Cyber savvy scientists, who study this sort of thing, say that the rise in the mean global temps is accompanied by isolated yet equally mean severe weather events. For most of Ohio, for the most part, it has simply been another mild winter. So sad these pick up trucks with the snow plow on the front and on the back, next to the faded green “Let It Snow!” bumper sticker, a fresh new “Make America Great Again” sticker.

The Way Of IKEA

January 10, 2017

Fulfillment center? Well, not exactly, but IKEA does address a lot of the household function concerns of urban dwellers. It does this with a nebulous generic form, a genealogy without pedigree muddled by global marketing and brand identity. IKEA could be identified as design living on a Walmart budget. Inquiries as to the nature of this design are met with hand waving and vague references to European styling or “that Scandinavian look”. Ostensibly one is to believe that IKEA is the successful progeny of a line threading back to the Bauhaus – you know, form and function, yadda, yadda. Contemporaneous with the Bauhaus, architects like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier designed multi unit urban dwelling spaces, some possibly still in use as such. Word in the back corridors of Art History is that many of the later day residents of these designed living spaces retro fitted them with antique-y or traditional doors, cabinets, furnishings and old kitsch simulacra. Next generation functional household designers of the 1950’s spawned (amongst a plethora of other styles) the European or “Scandinavian” look that IKEA products hearken. Along with this echo of the 50’s, IKEA’s products integrate a nostalgic “hominess” that later residents of Le Corbusier’s and van der Rohe’s designed units preferred. That is to say, there is some L L Bean “cottage,” traditional, and “country” informality mixed in to the pastiche called IKEA design. But it is a ready made household function solution for the style dilemma of city dwellers with no heritage and even less uniformity of fashion/style. You can’t beat the price. Following in the footsteps of ancient Sears Roebuck, J C Penney, or original L L Bean, prices listed on the virtual catalogue are not, do not reflect the actual cost of an item (sort of the obverse of the suggested retail selling price that is actually always sold at a discount). IKEA does, however, have a growing number of brick and mortar, or rather steel span and sheet metal skin, retail outlets/warehouses where the price listed is the cash and carry cost. The marketing of these “stores” (so called as they are also restaurants) is rather unique and informs the attraction the brand has on young urban hipsters. The way of IKEA is only one way, literally. There is a one way path through the stores. Unlike a stroll down memory lane, this is a not-virtual stroll through each and every catalogue item offered, a real time (and space) celebration of stuff. Though an integral part of design within the last 50 years, modular furniture is conspicuously absent along this walk. This crack in the way informs much of the relationship between those who come to walk the way (and consume the offerings of the way) and the brand’s marketing. It also speaks volumes about the current culture of global capitalism. IKEA offers multiple offerings for whatever “desire” those walking the way may have. One doesn’t have to settle, but is able to find a “designer” response to whatever one needs. The gap generated by the lack of modular furniture reveals that as long as it is found along the way, it is a safe and more than acceptable expression of the urban dweller’s discriminatory taste. Modular (the LEGO like linking of small units to form larger or varied compositions, you know the stuff that ultimately results in software compatibility and systems being able to communicate with each other, etc.) invites considerations that may well lead off the IKEA path, something heretical to IKEA marketing. Does all this sound a bit religious? In “The Culture of the New Capitalism” (2006) Richard Sennett defines a contemporary up and coming individual as someone who “would get rich by thinking short term, developing his or her potential, and regretting nothing.” (so why speak of the Bauhaus?) The IKEA way fits right into this as any alternative, off the path consideration implicates some sort of long term thinking (or, gasp, identity), actualizing difference (through a wider and varied array of choice and selection), and referencing the history of objects, design and art (you remember, that Marxist material dialectic thing about ideas only being around because some material thing makes it so. But then, no regrets likewise means no memory). The poets may sing, the philosophers argue, and the teachers inspire that there is unlimited capability in each individual, that opportunities are created and actualized by individuals within any given moment, that all have the capacity to generate a world of multiple dimensions, colors, forms and shapes, yadda, yadda. And yet, for some reason, it is a preferred choice to make selections from a pre-established path, to make variations from selections deemed acceptable there, and to fill out the household with the safe “aura” of decisions made along the way. Is it any wonder that within a secular world defined by global capitalism a religious predisposition still maintains such an enormous presence?

Arts Complicity

August 15, 2016

The Don As Art

[this is a repost from April 2011]

Part of the noose that is knot this week is the Meredith Vieira/Don Trump extravaganza that took place on The Today Show, April 7th 2011. Poor Meredith was dumped on for being preoccupied with packing her golden parachute while the Trump grandstanded over a non issue. Hearing that an epitome of the American entrepreneurial spirit, vested casino owner, pillar of skyscraperdom, and presidential wannabe has doubts was like hearing a Catholic priest wannabe question her faith. Although not mentioned, Meredith’s interview hearkened memories of Katie Couric bamboozling Sarah Palin. By those standards, Vieira certainly came off as unprepared and unarmed. But she was none of the above.

Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. is an essay by Bruno Latour that appeared in Critical Inquiry 30, no 2 winter of 2005. Reading this in the light of the Vieira/Trump interview makes finding fault with Meredith totally off the mark. As Latour points out, the Don simply employed methodologies and strategies of critique that have been championed for their incisiveness and originality. These methods and strategies were a stable of the pedagogy molding and forming cultural workers for the 21st century, eventually becoming part and parcel of our culture. That we don’t like the message, or the bearer of the message is one thing, but we certainly are enamored with the process by which the message is being delivered. Besides, the message is irrelevant. The Don got media attention, created buzz, acquired political capital, and promoted his “Already Successful Celebrity” Apprentice show. Recently, after a Charlie Sheen performance, in a “how was the show?” man-on-the-street interview by a Columbus Ohio TV station, the attendee gushed with praise for what a genius of marketing and how brilliant a promoter Mr. Sheen was.

How many times have you been to a visual art showing where the artist “interrogated” some commonly held cultural notions or practices, “questioned” given interpretations of reality? (The interrogation’s response- “That is for the viewer to imagine.”) How many times have you left such an art show thinking “Anyone can ask the questions. It’s a little more difficult, and requires some commitment, to provide an answer.” How many times have you seen associations made, juxtapositions of total fabrication, inappropriateness and inaccuracy portrayed as Art, justified by their being meant to jar the viewer and startle them into considering alternate realities? How many issue related works of Art have you pondered that righteously “made the point” that something was questionable or wrong with regard the environment, “human rights”, global economics, genocide, etc. but left you totally irritated and frustrated because the artist exerted absolutely no imagination or creativity in seeing through their banal article of faith declaration and dared not present how it could/should/must be (all the trappings of critique without being critical)?

C’mon folks, we love this stuff. As Latour pointed out, we’ve embraced this critique so intimately that we’ve lost the ability (or commitment) to imagine otherwise, to articulate a definitive and determinate meaning.

Review Of A Review

July 29, 2016

Here are excerpts from a book review by Robin Adele Greeley that appeared in the Summer 2016 Critical Inquiry. The book is Art beyond itself: Anthropology for a Society without a Story Line by Nestor Garcia Canclini.
“Artistic practice, once object-based, is increasingly founded on contexts; artworks are being “inserted in the media, urban spaces, digital networks, and forms of social participation where aesthetic differences seem to dissolve”. This “de-defining” of art throws into question long-standing analytical concepts such as Pierre Bourdieu’s art field that still depend on some idea of national cultures and distinct spheres of aesthetic production or (at the other end of the scale) on postmodern nomadism with its illusion of a world without borders.”
“Our trouble in providing a cogent storyline for contemporary art, Garcia Canclini insists, is of a piece with our vacillations about how to confront a post 9/11, post-2008 world in which conventional categories no longer explain contemporary experience, economics and politics have become “an unconvincing display,” and coherent narratives founder on the “barely explicable ruins of what globalization has destroyed”. Yet it is precisely in contemporary art’s ability to capture this state of incoherence that Garcia Canclini situates its capacity to address our present condition.” [!]
“Garcia Canclini argues that what defines contemporary art’s persuasive power is its “imminence”: its ability to “[insinuate] what cannot be said,” to “[say] things without pronouncing them fully,” maintaining them inventively unsettled. Art’s imminence is “the place where we catch sight of things that are just at the point of occurring”; it produces a “zone of uncertainty…suited not so much for direct [political] action as for suggesting the power of what hangs in suspense”. Art’s ability to critically embody that constitutive indeterminacy is what allows it to confront the bewildering splintering of competing or unconnected narratives.” [we’ve seen this movie before]
“If, for Ranciere, art’s politics resides not in giving marginalized social groups a means of representation but in introducing between the work and the spectator the paradox of the unanticipated, then Garcia Canclini rethinks this model, giving light to art’s current postautonomous condition.” [Didn’t anticipate that one, did you?]

So, next time you encounter something (“just at the point of occurring”) labeled art that makes no sense (“in which conventional categories no longer explain contemporary experience”) and is totally incoherent, you’ll have a handle on how to articulate what it is you are looking at and its significant imminence. Or not. Either way you’ll be able to say “that’s art!”

Romantic Sojourn

June 20, 2016

People used to write long texts. They were called letters. The exchange between reader and writer happened mechanically, over distance and time. Twitter, Instagram, I phones changed all that. Today I froze 21 packages of sugar snap peas, planted back in March. Back in March, a fluke occurred of 70 degree weather, pre-mature summer. This, after an exceptionally mild winter where my bee colony losses were likewise exceptional – around 15% instead of the previous years’ 40 – 60%. So the bees all responded as though it was late spring instead of early. Queenie laid a lot of eggs, obliged by the colony itself which was exceptionally strong after a southern U S winter. But wait, the plot thickens as we had freezes in April which killed off a lot of what would have been flowering. Enter May with overcrowded hives and little resources in the environment (remember the freeze?). So everyone decided that an overcrowded hive in the midst of scarce resources called for the reproduction of more of the species (a logical solution, never conceptualized by humans as they reproduce). So it has been a swarmy time from late April through early June. Some context from the political desk. Though most still imagine farms and markets as quaint places where bumpkins gather or toil, in actuality they are more akin to the New York stock exchange. Yes, that is a market which at one time belonged to Dow Jones, (GOK owns it now – gawd only knows who owns it now). Ditto for today’s marketing of farm produce. To sell means to belong (and adhere to the regime of standards, investments and acumen). It was once attractive to produce honey in that it could be marketed without restrictions like apples. Today, both are inspected, detected and rejected unless they meet rigid market requirements (posited by the owners of the market, who else?). But I digress. A plethora of riches, one would be wrong to assume, all these swarms gathered, all these hives surviving the mild winter – in theory producing the riches of a bumper crop of honey. But wait, unless you belong and your operation is detected, inspected and rejected, not so. And so it was for the last six weeks. Like a sailor sailing close to the wind, it was an adrenaline rush to understand what is taking place within the environmental milieu called nature and to run with it, gathering swarms of bees, making new bees (through nucs generated by all the queen cells produced) and providing space for the honey to be deposited. Wrong. Without belonging it was nothing but experience. As Andy Warhol famously said “Good art is good business” (or was it “Good business is good art.”?). Without the marketing, it was all akin to scaling El Capitan at Yosemite without the requisite Nike sponsorship that LeBron assumes as totally natural. Indeed, most athletes assume sponsorship as totally natural, part of the enterprise (ever check out a NASCAR driver?). So it has all come to a low roar now that the need to reproduce has subsided and I have kept up with the flow and have healthy hives. But alas, I kept up a little too close. I got too close to the wonderful rhythm usually called nature, when one “lives” (understands, sees, feels) what is taking place all around one. In one respect it is terrible in that one loses one’s being, one’s identity, and only functions because that is what is required, what is called for. On another hand it is quite the rush in that one senses, one “knows” what is coming down and can respond accordingly. Yet all the same, as Warhol pointed out, it is not much good unless one can make business of it. And that’s the gist of this missive, that there is so much more, so much vital expenditure and commitment that doesn’t involve capitalist requirements, and that it all goes by the way for reasons of capitalist economics. How much of this is truly vital for the evolution of the species, to adapt to what lies ahead, and is being denigrated and negated for the expediency of the market? And how much of this is simply a romantic sojourn?

Quick Critic Critique

April 27, 2016

Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott came out this year (2016). Criticism is a worthwhile activity that Scott certainly has the chops for. The book expands upon the role criticism plays, mainly within the arts and culture purview. A major contribution Scott makes is to re-remind us that criticism is the stepchild of any relationship. Pan briefly, dear reader, to a New Yorker style cartoon of two pigs feeding their faces at the trough of an industrial ag operation. One says to the other: “The lighting could be better in here.” And so it goes with criticism – it is an enhancement to the relationship or activity at hand. Scott likewise enjoins that criticism is an extension of art itself, an enhancement or even an embellishment. He traces much of the history of western European criticism. With that history comes the heavy reliance on argument, and the binary elements of form/content, nature/nurture, etc. (for every tit, a tat). He fails to break free of this. One senses that Scott “knows” there is something else to criticism but his historical expertise with western European thought inhibits such articulation. He touches on it when he promotes criticism as being a constituent component of art itself, part of quality. The Stalinist era Soviet literary scholar and critic Mikhail Bakhtin took an analogous tact by positing criticism as a necessary aid to understanding. The artist, along with the viewer/reader/audience, is “incomplete” in their knowledge or understanding of the activity or relationship at hand. The created work, within the process of becoming sensible, makes certain demands, revealing certain aspects of the author or artist. In becoming sentient, it articulates qualities the artist or author hasn’t considered – restrictions, agendas, outcomes, consequences, etc. (almost like Galatea and Pygmalion or Pinocchio). The artists as well as the viewers are likewise “incomplete” in their knowledge or understanding of themselves/each other. There is a segment of ourselves that we cannot see/appreciate/grasp. Yet others see it readily (for they stand outside the person). We rely on them to inform us. Academics term this “dialogical criticism” (involving more than one, a dialogue form) and students all remember the “more than one” part without noting the “incomplete” part. Scott likewise misses this characteristic of not only the works to be critiqued, but of those experiencing and engaged in the activity critiqued (why so much criticism centers on theater and cinema). Completion is the unspoken basic assumption underlying most western European “conceptual” definition, be it art, science, economics, etc. (if it’s conceptual, it’s complete). In a recently aired (4-24-16) Le Show interview with Harry Shearer, economist James Galbraith spoke about the inability of mainstream economists/policy makers to recognize this assumption. Criticism is disconcerting because, by its very being, it calls attention to this incompleteness. To cut to the chase (as this is a “quick” critic critique), does the lighting contribute to the repast or is it of no consequence – the consumption of swill being complete in itself?

Performance Art

January 8, 2016

For the Associated Press, Wilson Ring and Jill Colvin report on presidential wannabe Donald Trump’s latest campaign promotion in Burlington. Vermont (Protesters interrupt Trump Vermont rally despite screening, 1-8-16). The national media has focused on location and the number of folks who lined up (“Thousands of people stood in line for hours waiting to get into the Burlington event after the campaign distributed 20,000 free tickets to the Flynn Center for the Performing Art, which has just 1,400 seats.”). No one seemed to focus on the actual name of the space, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, nor the last part of the name, Performing Arts. D. Trump has been labeled a huckster, a P.T. Barnum, a Wild Bill Cody for his use of the stage, social media, and traditional media. Recently, many sources are analyzing campaign expenditure on advertising, noting that traditional TV ads are still king, with most of the other “lesser” candidates on the slate spending heavily to try to stay relevant. Trump has only begun to advertise within this framework. It appears that Donnie Trump is truly ahead of the pack, not only in terms of the polls, but in understanding the aesthetic of today’s culture. Jacques Ranciere may have theorized about the politics of aesthetics (the traditional take on culture as pertaining to art – architecture, dance, visual arts, music, etc.) as well as the aesthetics of politics (how politics is done) but Donnie Trump actually employs it. He may be one of the first to understand, through utilization, the effectiveness and viability of performance art. Within politics, this is a staple of South American democracies. In the US, it has been neglected primarily through regulation of the constitutional right to assembly (designated protest sites removed from the source of contention and debate). Mr. Trump has utilized the power of performance art to run a campaign without reliance on advertising. With the Burlington event we have his campaign manipulating the populace in order to produce the art (20,000 tickets for a 1,400 seat venue. Apparently Donnie has no regard for fire code). The ticket holders show up, forming a line, creating a news event. Like with open carry gun laws, it is impossible to tell which of the ticket holders in line are the good guys, and which are the bad (for or against the Trump candidacy). As with the performance art of the visual arts, no advertising expenditure created a spectacle, a sensation, an event or happening, whichever you prefer. In crass art terms – he got the message out. Performance art has a long, involved and rich history in American art dating back to Allan Kaprow’s Happenings in NYC (amongst others). Now it has finally entered the lexicon of America’s political aesthetic. Unfortunately, for most of the American public, it is a novelty that doesn’t have a name.