Archive for November, 2009

In Significance

November 29, 2009

In the world of eternal return the weight of

                                                             unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move   we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of

eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht).

 

If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then

our lives can stand out against it in all their

splendid lightness.

 

But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness

splendid? The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we

sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in

the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be

weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of

burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of

life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the

burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the

more real and truthful they become.

 

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden

causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the

heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly

being, and become only half real, his movements

as free as they are insignificant.

 

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

 

–Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

 

            Rummaging through a stack of old Art For ‘Ems in search of “I don’t know what,” in I don’t know which edition but I knew it was there; a true exercise in negative reasoning. Eventually, there it was (I knew it when I saw it). The residue remained, all the artists and works and the nostalgic review of their “newness,” their contemporary importance. Gone! The vast majority never made an encore appearance to the pages of that catalogue of culture. But the aftertaste lingers- trying to place works recalled that evoked those pictured, the works done by local artists and students. When were they made? Some I knew I had seen prior. Much, other, student work I knew came after.

            The reproduction by art students of culture catalogue works happens literally, but within the modernist sense of continuation and evolution. Amazing doesn’t begin to describe this re-occurrence. It is as predictable as sweaters and football with each new school year. The task of looking up working artists, contemporary art, and writing a paper on the research is de rigueur for college level studio art courses. Though the college mission statement doesn’t spell it out, there is a tacit, covert inculcation of the significance of any and all work done by the denizens of higher education.

            The current October 130 (from which the above quote comes) is half full of answers to a questionnaire considering the place of contemporary art within the traditional art history discipline. No consensus can be drawn but there is a resonance to the experience of “contemporary art history” comparable to that of my Art For ‘Em search.  The Kundera quote is used to suggest that although the current, post-post modern aesthetic regime can claim no readily identifiable thread within the modern, that there is nothing to “ground” it, or burden it, the resulting production often becomes “only half real” and insignificant.

            This creates a curious, contemporary cultural contradiction (whew!). If, as Ranciere suggests, the mother tongue is learned through mimicry, then, in spite of itself, the continued emphasis by studio art pedagogues on having students research the works of contemporary artists results in the perpetuation of the renaissance art school originated tradition of studying the masters through copying their works. This becomes fascinating when one realizes that it is being done coincidental with the real mission of these institutes of higher learning- molding citizens who consider themselves significant in the work they do and contribution they make.  We are being gifted by a culture of folks maintaining their “distinguished” significance by promoting works of limited or no significance.

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Benjamin and Baudrillard

November 26, 2009

           It is really funny but I’ve been bouncing around with Benjamin’s “technological (mechanical) reproduction” in my readings for the last couple of years. I’m coming away with a completely different understanding of what he was driving at, something much more integrated with primitivism, colonialism and the Enlightenment (as defining of meaning and hence what primitivism “means”, colonialism, etc.). It is also very much connected with what he was trying to describe as aura, or the “new” aura being reproduced through these technological innovations. It is also tied in to a completely different understanding of the word “medium.” The word medium, for Benjamin, probably did not have the same connotations it does for us. After McLuhan, the word medium has a much more sterile, generic connotation (like a telephone wire, radio wave, or digital code- capable of carrying any signal, i.e. signifier). With Benjamin, it is tied to the understanding of aura, that is, a medium embodies or transfers the aura. I also came at all this AFTER reading a lot of Baudrillard who established an understanding of the possibility of a culture “grounded” on signifiers with no signified (the emphasis on potlatch, where the original, and the power of the original, is wasted on purpose in order to display “real” power). With Benjamin, there is still recognition of the “power of the original” which somehow is transformed with the technological copy (hence his forays into aura and the difference in the connotation of the term medium). So for Benjamin, there was the intuition that technological society was, in a sense, becoming primitive, but not in the Enlightenment sense (where it is the opposite of intellectual “enlightenment,” i.e. ignorance), rather in the sense of how the power of the original is transferred or found in the copy, the technological reproduction, as a form of knowing (i.e. a mimetic faculty of which Michael Taussig writes in Mimesis and Alterity). This is very different from what Baudrillard (who wrote well after Benjamin and with knowledge of Benjamin’s thought) seized on with regard to Disneyland being America, and a social order, ethics, and raison d’etre that does not have any origin, any original, but is only a simulacra. Origins are ostensibly the sources of power for primitive cultures, as in songs of origin. But I digress.

Aura

November 22, 2009

For a brief while there, I was happy.

            It struck me as very unusual because I was happy, but not in a bourgeois way. I was aware that my happiness was in no way sanctioned by or prescribed by any bourgeois standards. I knew I was happy; but it was also unlike anything I had been striving for, expecting or anticipating. It didn’t “compare” to anything, nor did it “live up” to any kind of expectation. I was JUST happy.

            I found the whole event surprising, and totally mind boggling.

            Perhaps it was the reading I had done that evening. It was an article by Miriam Bratu Hansen regarding Benjamin’s use of aura, by revisiting its contemporary usage. How it literally was defined in association with medium, but more in the pre McLuhan sense, whereby medium is what permits something to take place or be transferred (makes possible). How Benjamin was trying to modify this sense to provide for a condition of experience in the technological age.

            Perhaps it was nostalgia for the young Marx’s utopian account of how in the post revolution Communist state, the citizen could work on some process in the morning, study and learn later in the day and go fishing or play tennis in the late afternoon. My day had been filled with a variety of tasks- from pouring concrete to gardening and reading the Hansen article.

            Perhaps it was that when the day started out, as well as throughout the day, I involved myself in tasks of interest, “that I wanted to see done.” Without consciously setting any goals, I met, if not surpassed, whatever goals I may have set on another day (as a motivation to fulfill the task). All the disparate tasks were actualized organically without the slightest sense of oppression, compulsion, or evasion.

            The next day after this event, I understood that this was rare and not to be duplicated. But the understanding of how much the bourgeois outlook stains and determines every aspect of personal experience (as a “condition” of experience today), became apparent, learned through praxis, as Marx would have real knowledge be.

            Then again, perhaps it had more to do with the watch I found several days prior. I believe it was my father’s. My pragmatic mother had continued to use it after his death since it still worked (even though it wasn’t a “ladies” watch). And there I was looking at it remembering that you had to wind these things to get them to “keep time.” So I wound it and it worked. I set it by the time on the computer monitor. The next day I checked it and it showed the exact same time as Microsoft time. So I wound it again. Every day since I have checked it and wound the little, oh-so-soft spring (there is resistance there but it takes so little effort to wind it up). Perhaps it is this lost sense that Benjamin was trying to address in his redefining of aura and its place within the condition of experience in the age of technology. This ability to “create” (time) through one’s efforts (bringing it into the Marxist discourse), daily (both through engagement as well as individually establishing the hour) differs from time as a capacity- the capacity of a battery, preset and charged with no need for engagement or individuation. This “new” sense, as a capacity that is predetermined with replenishment as the only contingency (like the action agent renewed with each termination/start-up of a video game), a sense of time that one never sets or engages, is totally different from the “old” sense that this historic mechanism initiated. Indeed, it is much as Benjamin’s something distant that appears but is not present.

 

The Saint

November 20, 2009

            For quite some time I’ve sensed this kind of cloned nostalgia for the 50’s beat perspective, when there were still bookstores, authors spouted their poetry in coffee shops that didn’t require a second mortgage for a cup of joe (and weren’t called “trendy”), and musicians/visual artists critiqued work with an eye to the authentic and genuine. Being the digital age, it is all cloned (of course) since it can only appropriate, not originate. Something was going on then but the only acceptable description is a digital one which means it must be objective (or should I say, all meaning is only found with the objective). Sigh. It is lacking some “Je ne sais pas.”

 

The Saint

            I was very surprised to find the spring 09 edition of Critical Inquiry to be totally devoted to The Saint. What a drag! Why are they doing this religious inquiry? Totally irrelevant! In the spirit of committed perversity which makes one a subscriber of such journals, I started reading some of the articles. For starters, St. Elvis (first protestant saint, patron saint of the American Dream), written by a non writer, a photographer, chosen at random and easily digested. Eventually I moved on to more weighty fare (Patron Saint of the Incongruous: Rabbi Me’ir, the Talmud, and Menippean Satire). I went through the essays categorically.

            In their version of the traditional religious song, Run On For A Long Time, the Blind Boys of Alabama sing the lyrics “Some people go to church just to signify, trying to get a date with the neighbor’s wife…” This seems to be the status quo when it comes to most people’s commitment or involvement with religion. It is totally mediated, a part or segment of an otherwise preoccupied and multi interested/involved life. The Saint (at least from what I surmise from reading all the various essays in this journal) is someone who has a very direct and unmediated relationship with the divine. Depending on who is doing the analysis, the Saint is found in all cultures, religions (though some religions or sect’s eschew the notion of anyone being a saint). This may be all very fine and interesting to students of religious studies or multi-culturalism, but what in the H does it have to do with us, with now, with the current culture?

            There is a very curious correlation between the cloned nostalgia for the authentic and genuine, and the topic of the spring Critical Inquiry. If one shifts, or “translates” (the preferred academic term these days) the religious connotation (definition) of the Saint to a secular one, one having to do with  what was formerly ascribed to Humanism- the pursuits of literature, music, and visual arts- one finds a surprising relevance and insight. The Saint is this individual with a direct and unmediated relationship. The current digital culture yearns for just that. Yet mediation is precisely what defines the current digital culture. What is unmediated, is not; cannot be described or reproduced. Critical Inquiry spending an issue to deal with the imaginary of the Saint is to speak the unspeakable, to think the unthinkable (one of the consequences of critique, critical thinking, according to Judith Butler). To cut to the chase, to speak of someone involved with literature, music, or the visual arts who isn’t producing “just to signify” (assure themselves a place in heaven by advancing their career) or “get a date with the neighbor’s wife” (networking to get some for themselves) is to speak of a Saint- something totally unimaginable (unthinkable), something indescribable (unspeakable) within the current mediated culture. Like Elvis at the dawn of rock and roll, Michael Jackson becomes the de facto patron Saint of the current digital culture (was there ever a “Michael Jackson Unplugged” performance? Even his singing with his children is “remembered” through videos). Indeed, the hermaphroditic qualities found in Michael Jackson “embody” his direct and unmediated relationship to the nascent mediated, digital culture.

 

Weekend Odds and Ends, New and Old

November 15, 2009

            This past week Luc Tuymans was interviewed by T. J. Clark at the Wexner. It was refreshing to witness an artist/critic conversation not inhibited by art. Mr. Tuymans ranged over history, family, politics, personal likes and dislikes, all in reference to his work. What’s an artist/critic conversation inhibited by art? It is the legacy of Clement Greenberg lurking in the shadows. It is the need to be “art specific” in the sense that Greenberg stressed being “medium specific.” When a conversation with an artist stays centered on art history, the evolution of the artist’s work from that of the work of others that preceded the artist, its relationship to other “like” artwork (the spontaneous generation of genre), and the instantiation of theory within that artist’s repertoire, then you know the conversation is being inhibited by art. Some of Clark’s segues were specific in promoting his own agenda of interpreting Tuymans’ work. Luc Tuymans was very generous in allowing these but also did not oblige Clark with any commitment to Clark’s personal perspective.

            This week Mermaid Hawley emailed updates on the ongoing melodrama of Coney Island and its temporary reprieve. It made me think of the chorus line from the John Prine song Paradise. I had forgotten about this singer/songwriter. How did that happen?  Listening again to his early songs I found the lyrics still relevant, pertinent, and cutting. Prine was a contemporary of Dylan and equally prodigious. I’m certain when the awards for relics are given out at the Kennedy Center it will go to Bob and not John. That is understandable as awards always reflect the values of those passing them out. Dylan’s early lyrics always embodied some form of control, some form of potency and power. A child of the decline of colonialism, his early songs always had someone, be it a deus ex machina, a protagonist or antagonist, or just a “they,” that had the power or control of a situation. There is always a sense that the “reason” for how things have become or turned out the way they are, can be found or determined (though it is not readily available or apparent). If it can be known and articulated, if it can be named, then it can be defined. By defining it, it becomes ours, we reassert our control (though the actual situation has not changed in the least). Prine’s songs embody being caught up in things that have no explanation; it just turns out to be that way (“that’s the way that the world goes round”). Prine’s antagonists/protagonists, the many various characters who inhabit his poetic “-scapes” are not in control, have no power to effect any substantial change. They are more like Shakespearean actors who have their moment to strut their stuff on the stage, simply playing out their roles without any determination or understanding of the greater whole. Dylan’s early work appealed to “intellectuals” because it spoke of the greater environment and understanding of the universe or cosmos at large that a thinking being found itself immersed in, a universe that was named and defined. A closer analysis reveals that it was more an appeal to the privilege and power of intellect/intellectuals as an expression of bourgeoisie culture at the tail end of colonialism. The need to “sum it up,” to understand it all is prevalent throughout (there’s always a master narrative lurking in the margins). The existence of some power that exercises its dominance and influence is of the utmost priority. Even more important is the need to “believe” that there is an explanation for what is going on, even if the individual doesn’t possess it; that somehow it can be understood, that power can be exerted to effect an outcome. This need for control is absent with Prine’s early work where the subject is caught up in things, even before they become a subject. Dylan receives awards, while Prine’s work will most likely become like his subjects- part of the history of what is integral to the making of everyday life but lost in the need to take that history for granted, not call attention to it for the sake of maintaining a hierarchy of control and dominance.

Amy Winehouse Sings Fado

November 12, 2009

          Recently I encountered an acquaintance who instructs art students in the special mixed media lab at a local college. I asked about how his art is going. He spoke of a new machine he just purchased and his fascination with creating a production that had never been done using that process, something “new.” He was challenged by the prospect of utilizing the machine for the production of art in a way that had not been anticipated by the machine’s design. Later reflection left me considering how my interests lie more with narrative. To appreciate his artwork, one would need some grasp or understanding of the process he employs, the technology. Otherwise, the man on the street (unaware of this) would only notice “another neat thing.” Yet, that same viewer would enter into a story, a narrative, without any of the prerequisite assumptions of sharing a knowledge of technical processes or innovation.
          Technical virtuosity has one leg in the eternal. It shares the time and space of mathematics, theory, and theology/philosophy. This is a space/time unaffected by the mundane. 2+2=4 is unaffected by budget cuts or states of war. When some truth of physics is concretely instantiated, there is a fascination with this phenomenon. The feat must share billing with the “truths that are eternal.”
          Bakhtin wrote about carnival and literary approaches that subverted the eternal truths through immersion in the everyday, the mundane, the necessary sustainable reality faced by a social entity. His reference to the sources of these modes of presentation centered on the middle ages and the ancient Hellenic Roman cultures. These were not capitalist societies (cultures) in the modern sense. One term he used to describe this mode was “slum naturalism.”

“Julie Britton, vice president of development for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Florida, said officials may have to skew away from avant-garde art designed to push
boundaries in favor of things more certain to sell tickets.
“Part of our mission is to bring people things that are new,” said Britton. “That’s very
difficult to do when you have to be risk-averse in this situation.””
From an AP on line article dated August 29, 2009

          I don’t see where “new” has to be part of the mission of any arts organization (or individual producer). “New,” and newness, is a totally capitalist concept of advertising and marketing (phenomena). Before capitalism, and in cultures that were not capitalist, art was being produced. Its importance and relevance had nothing to do with “new.” It had everything to do with the interface between what is eternal, but unsustainable, and what is sustainable, but not eternal. Where is the “new” in an analysis of Amy Winehouse singing Fado? Would it be with the singer? The song? Or the singing? Should Ms. Winehouse ever take up the study of Fado, the fascination would be with the interface of “slum naturalism” and eternal truth, not with a “production that had never been done using that process.” There is nothing “new” with singers, songs, or singing.

The Contemporary Nude

November 8, 2009

In his book The Impossible Nude, Francois Jullien promotes the idea that the nude in western culture runs concurrent with the western interpretation of being, contrary to the ancient Chinese culture which had no word for “being” and spawned no nudes. Being, in the western sense, stems from an abstraction of the “river that cannot be stepped into even once” (within which we all swim). In a mathematical sense, it is the (imagined) “river” frozen into a specific category or description, like a number is a specific individuation of a continuum of mass, of many. In this sense the nude posits the individual human, the “that’s all there is.” Like the number, it is defining of a specificity, of an individual within the mass of mankind, the many, what it is to be part of that mass, that mankind made up of enumerable descriptions. Yet the nude, in its unity, reveals all those descriptions in one fell swoop, immediately and apparently. The all is found in the one.
Recently a 35,000 year old carving of a female nude was found and it was immediately associated with sex. I wondered whether this is what was going on when it was originally carved, when it was originally incorporated into the social/psychic order.
This led me to consider what has become of the nude in the current social/psychic order. Obviously the nude is not. Why not? Given Jullien’s hypothesis, one can only surmise that western thought no longer finds individuated abstraction as descriptive of being. Western social/psychic order gravitates more toward what could be termed “process” thinking. Yet this is not the transformational process orientation of the ancient Chinese thinking that Jullien utilizes to gain insight into the western nude. For one thing, the abstract of frozen imagination still remains with this western notion of “process.” For this western notion, process is composed of moments, each moment (like math) can be broken down into micro moments, etc. The notion of time, of mathematics, is never far from any notion of process within western thinking. The Enlightenment origins of the nature of western scientific inquiry/theory account for this. So what has become of the nude?
Given this revised interpretation of being (being implicating the description of a process with each minute divisible into seconds, and each second into tenths of a second, etc. like the results of a race), the frozen imagination descriptive of existence is still there. Only now, it is multiple. For the Greeks, the nude male figure of Zeus embodied the frozen imagination; the abstraction of the potent, alpha male made concrete. That no such male ever existed was irrelevant, the nude embodied the abstraction of the character. Now, however, no such single abstraction (essence) exists. All are just moments in an expanded abstraction of process, of potentialities and capacities that play out or become apparent. Unlike the ancient Chinese interpretation (of process as continuously transformative), each of the individuated moments must be Zeus as well as the entirety (“Process Zeus”). Today’s Zeus is captured in time (unlike his Greek predecessor who resided on timeless Mt Olympus) and the identity of his “being” has to be found in each moment as well as in total. Although still caught up in the frozen imagination of abstraction, today’s nude must be capable of describing any and all possibility (as opposed to the classical nude that “essentially” was the specific character without any clothes on). Extending Jullien’s trajectory in a popular sense, today’s nude would be Beauty Pageant contestants, Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, or Victoria’s Secret lingerie models; each on their way to becoming the Playboy Playmate, celebrity Hollywood star, etc. Each is a given moment in the process that could be termed the female nude. That is, all are caught up in process yet each one is a moment of frozen imagination, an abstraction of what the female form is (or could be). But I digress. What is the metaphysic behind today’s culture that precludes the nude, for the nude is not in today’s culture, though there is a lot of flesh without clothing?
I would like to propose that the metaphysic of being within the current western culture that precludes the nude is one that resembles the ancient Chinese thinking that Jullien utilized. However, like the current western notion of process, it is not at all similar or analogous to that “other” description of transformative “being.” At the heart of the current western cultural metaphysic (which accommodates the notion of process put forward by scientific theory) is the ancient Greek notion of matter. Surprised? I’d say. To update it, one only needs to peruse the software needed to produce this very document, and find the category described as “blank document.” The blank document has supplanted the ancient Greek notion of matter but it in no way is similar or analogous to the ancient Chinese notion of emptiness (which is a constitutional requirement of transformation). In a practical, utilitarian sense, the blank document is a carry over of the ancient western description of matter. The blank document accommodates a process enumerated by moments. It likewise allows for that process to be erased, deleted (partially or completely), and for a “new” blank document to enumerate a different set of moments describing yet another process, etc. ad nauseum. It is the blank document which is seen as the “individual,” the essence that comes to represent being (rather Lacanian in terms of subjective essence). Processes describe documents, yet the document itself is not limited by any process. Nothing is believed to stick, to make up the individual “essentially” (the way a tattoo can be erased with a laser, to make way for a new tattoo, or a new “tattoo free” personality). Indeed, individuals limited by their description (essentially) are considered disabled; at best (by unalterably modifying the description of a document) “challenged.” Rather, the many moments of the process are always a mitigating factor making up any one individual (at any given “moment” in time). Changing the factors introduces a new process, an altered individual (this becomes particularly resonant within the current capitalist emphasis on the mobility of labor). Hence the nude, as embodying essence, the “that’s all there is, there is nothing more, nothing beyond that,” is not. Instead of the nude we have images of actual (or illustrated) DNA, viruses, internal organs or the brain (even more- images of frozen test tubes lifted out of extreme refrigeration or an egg cell penetrated by a needle tip). Again, these are isolated moments of frozen imagination, abstractions of what is considered the process of human life which describe the individual blank document. In that way, they function much as the nude described by Jullien.
The problem with this entire approach is that the graveyard we all whistle past is not filled with blank documents. This problem also lies at the core, the heart of the aporia termed “global warming,” “climate change.” Scientific inquiry/theory implicates the blank document, without which it cannot abstract a given data. The actuality of our universe is not a blank document.
DSCN0369blog

One Conclusion

November 5, 2009

I was at the funeral service for an ancient lady. Her history spanned continents and world events. She had endured. And thrived.
The minister was in tune with the current era throughout the centuries old service. He explained all the different ritual actions/ interactions as he went along. It brought to mind the recent news item of the “discovery” of Bluehenge near Stonehenge. Though no blue rocks are to be found at Bluehenge (only the evidence of their original placement), the archeologists/scholars sutured the site with the nearby sites of Woodhenge and Stonehenge to weave an elaborate account of funeral rituals involving all three sites. Woodhenge was where the body of the deceased was first brought, the land of the living. According to these modern day Homers, the Iliad of the corpse then continued on to Bluehenge, the place of death. The body’s Odyssey ended at Stonehenge, the universal portal to eternity. Unfortunately, along with the absconded blue rocks, the requisite service manual to perform such funeral rites has also vanished mysteriously. Though it has left no trace, the archeological scholars tell us there is evidence to support this yarn.
I’m left pondering and struggling with a question posed in previous writings. “Why do we need myths and history to interact socially? Why can’t we simply interact objectively, like psychopaths without a social conscience, purely on empirical reasoning?” The present digital age/culture makes the objective, empirical description of all social/physical functions not only theoretically possible but actual. With such a description, social exchange becomes totally empirical, devoid of the stories and myths that are the raison d’etre of social conscience. And yet we insist on this conscience, we rely on the comfort of stories when faced with reams of empirically described data (and we are now accumulating this data at an exponential rate). Why? Will future generations ever make the “leap” of non-faith, of disbelief, to a social exchange that is totally devoid of narrative, history, and myth? Within the context of empiricism, stories, myths and histories are only lies, fabrications strung together with no basis in “reality” (reality being only that which can be described empirically, by today’s standards- that which can be counted). With our ever increasing reliance on technology and its positivist outlook, there is less and less tolerance for such lies and fabrication. Will we reach a point where they will be completely dispensed with, outlawed, of no social benefit?
My father used to say that it was very easy to pose a question, but very hard to answer one. Here is an attempt:
Part of the reason for our reliance, “need,” and preference for lies and fabrications can be found in what used to be called biofeedback. True, today neuro-scientists claim to be able to isolate sections of the brain where an actual thought takes place and identify exactly when that thought occurs. They even claim to be able to produce very simple thoughts (such as yes/no) through external stimulus of these areas. Their eventual intent is to connect such bio chemical interaction with that of electro mechanical machine functions. This all was not possible only ten years ago. But there is the side of bio feedback that first brought it to the attention of scientists. The ability of thought to stimulate or inhibit the physiological functioning of the thinker’s body originally spurred this research. This is the aspect that accounts for society’s preference and reliance on lies and fabrications. It is what produces culture as we’ve known it, have wanted to believe it to be through to the current era.
The potency of thought to produce bio-chemical changes within the body, whether to speed up or slow down heart rate, release hormones, or chemicals, etc. contributes to an initial fabrication- that of individuality or singularity. With that, the Pandora’s box of exception opens (you got to love myth for its succinct, descriptive abilities!). The capacity to not only affect one’s own bodily bio-chemical response through the use of images, sounds, or structured language, but also that of others, becomes the basis of another fabrication- that of agency. The social need and preference for lies and fabrication is paralleled by the social need for the “belief” in agency, in the exceptionalness of singularity, individuality. I think this is something Marx missed in his dismissal of religion. The bio feedback capability of thought creates an efficacy (an entire economy of efficacy at that). This efficacy lays claim to being able to act on the universe itself. Marx interpreted this as labor, man’s interaction with nature. But it is also the basis of man’s “belief” that he is somehow an agent within the universe, able to influence its outcomes (and not just be influenced by it, within it). This has a bearing on what otherwise, through empirical description (you know, the one that counts), is a process for which the singular individual is only a component of no consequence. To say that these archeological sites were an ancient farmers’ market, craft fair, and flea market is not as satisfying as claiming they were component parts of some elaborate funeral ritual. The combination of endorphins, dopamine, etc. that are implicated by what social consensus describes as satisfaction are, in themselves, part of the bio feedback process of the physical body.

Numbers and House

November 2, 2009

Reruns of House were on tonight. It is so different watching this after realizing what is going on within the cultural context. It is so much more enjoyable, especially the writing, when the comparison to Spock and Dr Who is made. The writing has remained consistent in these early episodes. House is definitely at the center but he responds to everything as Spock did, only he was not born a Vulcan; everything he encounters he experiences along with his peers, except for the response. In that, he is another Spock.
House has not only affected how I watch the show “House” but also how I see art. Many years ago, pre 911, I made the acquaintance of a brilliant easel painter. But alas, he was not a painter, but a mathematician. Alas again, mathematics was too competitive, so he was a computer programmer, systems analyst, etc. But he had mastered the art of oil painting and was able to paint like Vermeer, or any of the old European realist masters. His technique was amazing. The work was conceptual, of course (whose work isn’t?). But his figures, portraits and “person’s” seemed rather dark, bereft, in angst. But hey, the times were of how cruel and full of injustice was the world of the Other. His subject matter covered that world since he was hip and wanted to be “cutting edge” with all the leisure that the heyday of our Dot Com economy provided him at the time. He continued with the enterprise post 911 but moved more and more into the imagery of his day job- the math and pixilation. Yet his figurative imagery stayed just as dreary. An early show, although triumphant in the use of miniscule colored objects- actual, physical objects stacked to create a pixilated image in the tradition of the pointillists, left me with a queasy sense when I viewed the various portraits and figures (active or at rest). His latest work invites the viewer to come and see what he has done with 140,000 objects, only this time they are of different textures and gravities, like rock, scissors, paper. The image on the announcement was a portrait (of the same subject he has done since pre 911). Post House, I realize how morbid his imagery is. Yes, it is technically brilliant. Yet the image we get is of something as a specimen, with no life to it. Like a death mask, it is a perfect reproduction of what the subject looked like, but without the animation. Our lives rely on this fellow and his abilities at his day job. No one will point out to him that his work is morbid, unbearable. After all, it is made out of minute, everyday colored objects. And the numbers, they are so huge. What is there not to marvel at? (Allan McCollum’s entire claim to fame rests precisely with the numbers) Psychologist and philosophers have all stated repeatedly that the construction mirrors the constructor. Old photography is celebrated today as the art of the 20th century for the person of the photographer who “created” the image. It spoke of the human condition. But a machine only speaks of the machine condition, which is morbid and unbearable. It has no life, but only functions; much as patients function as biological entities in old episodes of House. The one thing that Alenka Zupancic missed completely in her account of the current ideology of success (The Odd One In: On Comedy) is its total reliance, its indebtedness, to the machine. All ideologies are beholden to some repressed, some unmentioned Hegelian slave upon which their ideology can “flower” and consider itself definitive. Be it women, child labor, disenfranchised peasants, “guest workers”, etc. ideology requires someone to do the non-ideological grunt work. As Hegel pointed out, that non-ideological component influences the ideology dialectically. The current ideology of success reveals its reliance on the machine through popular television entertainment like House.
Well analog TV, as we’ve known it, disappeared. Welcome to the all new, entirely digital age. I was musing on the fact that 50 years ago television producers (and their parent companies) would have killed to be able to do what TV can do today. No, not the technology, that is just a smokescreen. I’m talking about the fact that within a few years, the only “TV entertainment” will be that for which one must pay. The converter box thing (mandatory for previous analog antenna reception) is just the initial step for television producers to stop having to “broadcast” signals to a “general public”. Indeed, broadcast TV will go the way of CB radio. It will still be possible, but only the fringe element will indulge in it. Television entertainment, as we’ve known it, will only be transferred through a mandatory “service provider,” by subscription. And, it will all be done so seamlessly that the advertising will still be considered a requisite component. The only difference in the television of the past and that of the future is that it will no longer be free, available to an undifferentiated public. The rest will be pretty much the same. Only radio remains as a source of “broadcast” media where, for a small, initial investment (the appliance), one can gain a glimpse into what is happening in the larger, public sphere of entertainment, news, etc. Newspapers are exiting print rapidly (for a miniscule investment one could catch up on what is happening in the public sphere). Television, like healthcare, has quietly gone from being readily available to whoever could immediately afford a unit (or a visit to the doctor’s office in the case of healthcare) to where a service provider (much like an HMO or insurer) is a requisite to obtaining access. But the advertising still maintains its association and precedence.
While ruminating on House reruns, I couldn’t help notice the plethora of ads, from check cashing services to tampons. I was struck by how much of the enticement involved the scientific designation of the product. Beer branded with the actual amount of grams of carbohydrates as its name, yogurt with. L casei immunitas, etc. Pleasure, or the potential for immortality, no longer holds sway as a reason for parting with one’s discretionary income. The promise of certain interaction within the scientific matrix of the real does. Much as the artist who’s celebrity now rests with numbers (in an age where the numbers are only possible thanks to the machines that created them), our taste has shifted from quality being associated with an aesthetic of pleasure, distraction, or immortality, to one of pure quantity- being an integral part of the mathematical breakdown of the universe (the distribution of the sensible only to that which can be factually verified by counting- if ya can’t count it, it ain’t real)). The capitalist economic tie-in is, likewise, brilliant and seamless (and, like a good laxative, quietly effective). Exchange is now purely on the basis of analogous equivalence, quantity determines price. Rarity (numerical scarcity) demands a higher rate of exchange, etc. (antibiotics are free with a prescription from a service provider). One no longer needs the attractive woman in front of the sporty new hybrid sports car at the auto show. Like the numbers artist’s work, what is being sold is morbid and unbearable. But that doesn’t matter because it has only 10 grams of cholesterol (and the good kind at that) and zero trans fats. House doesn’t smoke cigars at the end of the day like the late Denny Crane, and only uses in order to function (brilliantly at that). Indeed, House’s day never ends. He is on call 24/7.