Archive for October, 2010

The Language Of A Society Of Spectacle

October 31, 2010

            This past week a few responses came back to a creative missive sent out earlier in the spirit of the season. One response was a narrative that spoke of not only appreciating the original missive, but continued it through the writer’s own initiative, as well as also spoke somewhat of how things are going for the author of the response. Another response received was along the lines of “OMG, Amazing! LOL”. It consisted of text message abbreviations and a single word. The polarity of these particular responses brought to mind Walter Benjamin’s endeavor’s into aura and the art/culture of technology.

            Regardless of the interpretation one gives to Benjamin’s insights, of his use of  the term aura or of whether it was extended to include the new technological reproductions of the time (see archive posts Aura 11-22-09, Benjamin and Baudrillard 11-26-09), one of the interpretations of this term could be of “something distant that appears but is not present”. The narrative response received certainly would fit into that description. Indeed, that is what is remarkable about it. Although it didn’t inform in any significant way, it left me (the reader) with the sense that I had just had the pleasure of a short visit with the author of that response. The second, abbreviated response also did not inform in any significant way. However, it seemed more aptly to be a case of something present that is indicated but not distant (not a trace of anything having occurred).  Upon reading it, one is only left with the sense that the original missive had been received and now was duly filed under the terms of the response. OMG thus becomes this huge file. The original missive is now there along with all the other items that elicit this response. It all seemed like a purely machine function of language, hence bringing Benjamin to mind.

            I don’t think Benjamin projected his insights on the technological reproduction of art, and of such a culture, to also include language. Yet this is what just occurred within my correspondence. Language is losing its aura and it is being replaced by a practical, indexical semiotic. Response is becoming indexical rather than along the lines of the 19th century’s association of aura with séance’s and Ouija board participation as interactions between sources of being (subjects).  This all leads to very strange implications for the “significance” of any language event (such as an original missive and/or any response) since the content of neither of the two given responses was of any particular significance. The one response left me with a sense of presence, of a subject.  The other response only created a lack; that only a great number of self same responses would indicate any import. That an index has been referred to often (had a lot of hits, generated a lot of buzz, etc.) is all that makes for significance within such a semiotic interpretation. Considering the complete absence of any human within the machine activity that continuously trades on the global financial markets (and hence creates the value of capital), one can begin to imagine the workings of a language lacking a subject. Because of the omnipresent lack, it is full of desire while never able to satisfy it; always only witnessing its significance as a separate reality. It is definitely the language of a society of spectacle.

Potpourri Tureen

October 22, 2010

            Juan Williams gets canned by NPR for talking out the side of his head on Fox. Immediately, there becomes the NPR “listeners community” versus the Fox “listeners community”. Not to insult anyone’s intelligence but we all become aware of the oppositional “us/them” competitive dichotomy symptomatic of capitalism. Then again, what else could we expect given that it is the only game in town, the soup that we all swim in? Which brings to mind Debord’s spectacle and its reference by Ranciere, “the spectacle is not the display of images concealing reality. It is the existence of social activity and social wealth as a separate reality” (pg. 44 The Emancipated Spectator). This idea of separation, of “us/them” so important to this current tempest in a media teapot (not to be confused with the “we-really-aren’t-like-that”/ “I am you” tempest in the tea bagger’s teapot) carries over into the operational definition of community in today’s spectacle saturated soup. I mean, “community” is used as much, if not more, as a public justification as “wants to spend more time with his family” is. Identity of community is reliant on the establishment of an Other (an NPR to a Fox). In his in depth consideration of Allora and Calzadilla’s work in October 133, Yates McKee makes explicit that much of their early work was effective precisely because of the pre existing “us/them” dichotomy that established community through an emphasis on the Other. He points out that Allora and Calzadilla themselves became aware of this when they decided to return to Vieques AFTER the Navy had vacated the island. This then became a time when the Other would no longer be there as the working identity of community. McKee’s article itself establishes (and relies on) a community through conscientiously meticulous cross referencing and precise language in order to insure that any “other” interpretation would not be within his preferred consensus. This need for “community” appears to be “natural” until one is jolted by the intense wetness of the soup of spectacle, the only game in town that we all must swim in (whether we ascribe to community or not). This “natural” communal “instinct” then only becomes another manifestation of the methodology of separation, the day to day functional operation of the capitalist soup. Ranciere’s “quality of human beings without qualities” (pg. 49 The Emancipated Spectator) takes on a completely different spin when being “without qualities” means having no need for community (the identity which ascribes/inscribes quality, i.e. recognition). Having the quality of not recognizing an Other, hence not recognizing a community, would certainly open up and enable many capacities that are unimagined within the necessarily oppositional mode of capitalistic functioning.

Not A Love Story

October 15, 2010

            The summer October 133 features an article entitled Wild Shanghai Grass. It is a brief overview/critique by Molly Nesbit of Yang Fudong and the five parts of his Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest.  Ms. Nesbit’s association with Yang Fudong stems from her being co curator of a Utopia Station where they must have crossed paths. Her translation of his ensuing work implicates his Utopian experience in the outcome of many of the parts. From her perspective, this may be so. From someone unfamiliar with both the Utopia Station as well as Yang Fudong, and who is only considering what he is reading, the association may be one that Ms. Nesbit makes more of than Mr. Fudong.

            What she has to say about Mr. Fudong and his work is very refreshing. As Paul Harvey would say “and now for the rest of the story”, one wonders about Mr. Fudong’s continuous (and early) active involvement with the various Biennale’s and Utopia’s, etc. even before his work was complete (the separate parts, including part one, premiered for the first time at these events. The completed work was not shown in entirety until 2007). One wonders how he materialized without production. Nesbit’s brief bio of Fudong makes it appear that he went from disaffected but incredibly inquisitive art student to international art celebrity on the basis of his persona alone. The account leaves one with an aftertaste of elitism that very much inhibits the appreciation of the account given of Mr. Fudong’s work.

            The account given of Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest is of a very stimulating, inviting and promising piece of work. Ms. Nesbit obviously has a good understanding of the background from where the work is coming and what it is trying to narrate. Will folks in the US heartland ever experience this production within a timely manner? Doubtful (the acid reflux of an elitism aftertaste). The five parts sound marvelous in their synopsis of young “intellectuals” immersing themselves in the experience of the world, beginning with the classicism of the first part, the introspectiveness of the long night of part two, the practice (and theory) of  three, the solitary refinement of four, and the return to the city in five, with its oblivion of the previous parts. The telling is what makes it so refreshing. The telling, the making material of this passage of experience, even with its oblivion in the end, make it relevant and desirable. It is uncanny how the five part narration parallels the traditional accounts given of the experience of Chan Buddhism (including the final oblivion of what went before). Yet the account itself remains. The telling is material, if only on film or stored digitally in the cloud to be retold by a machine. It is an account, a telling, much in the tradition of Homer, even though referencing Sartre within its composition. As such, the telling is somewhat antiseptic (not within the Homeric flow of kidnapping, catastrophes and killing, nor the Sartrean current either). From Molly Nesbit’s account, no deaths, serious physical ailments or afflictions, no financial meltdowns (inadvertently Marx’s  economics underlayment does not factor into our intellectuals’ adventures), nor addictions or madness find their way in. As has been said of Wyeth’s work, there are no airplane contrails in the sky of this landscape. It is as an intellectual would project, what is included is always, and only, that within the mastery or predictable control of the projectionist. No out of control factors appear here, no mine cave-ins, no inundating hurricanes, no wars that obliterate and create refugees. The negative forces of creation and change have been forgotten with the thoughts relegated to oblivion in part one (according to Jullien, they ought to make their way downstream to part five). In this respect Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest differs from the intellectuals of a Pasternak narration. I suspect Yang Fudong’s output may appear vastly different when he matures, a term Molly Nesbit uses to describe in summary the completion of part five.

Only Certain Ideas Are Legitimate

October 10, 2010

            In his 2009 book, The Emancipated Spectator (Verso), Jacques Ranciere frequently references Guy Debord and the spectacle. Debord’s account of the spectacle is taken as a description of the kind of soup that we all find ourselves in. Currently, here in the US, the upcoming midterm elections occupy the center ring. Several visual ads have caught the attention of the pundits intent on flexing their acuity for discovering the “underlying truth.” One was for a race in West Virginia; that the ad was actually staged and recorded in a Philly diner with a casting call soliciting “hick” types, clothing, etc. (by an actual Philadelphia lawyer?) Another ad was that of a hard hat here in Ohio that the Steelworkers Union found fault with the fact that it was actually a portrayal by an (non union) actor and in no way was indicative of the blue collar (union) outlook.

            In the chapter entitled The Misadventures of Critical Thought, Ranciere writes:

“That is the truth of the concept of spectacle as fixed by Guy Debord: the spectacle is not the display of images concealing reality. It is the existence of social activity and social wealth as a separate reality…

To know the law of the spectacle comes down to knowing the way in which it endlessly reproduces the falsification that is identical to its reality. Debord summarized the logic of this circle in a lapidary formula: ‘In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.’ Thus, knowledge of the inversion itself belongs to the inverted world, knowledge of subjection to the world of subjection. That is why the critique of the illusion of images could be converted into a critique of the illusion of reality, and the critique of false wealth into a critique of false poverty.” (pg. 44-45)

            The “news” that political ads involve actors, doesn’t come across as very new to most of us. But one does wonder where it positions these modern day Christopher Columbus’s, as well as their readers, within this inversion. Would be aspirants for political leadership tout their disdain for big government while chastising their incumbent opponents for not having created jobs. “Vote for me” will get people hired. The last time I looked, the government grows with each new governmental job. The private sector, which always remains mum and never enters into this fray, are the ones not hiring, and like BP’s humongous oil spill, their actions are completely out of the pale of governmental capacity (archive post Spam Camouflage May 30, 2010).  Exactly how does a government leadership position create more jobs without making the government grow? The inversion becomes even more bizarre with a radio ad making the rounds on popular country stations. It starts out by decrying the destruction of our economy by the wasteful spending habits of Washington legislators who are chipping away at our rights (rock breaking sounds accompany this portion). It endorses candidate so and so who will protect our second amendment rights. The glaring slippage of this ad truly places it right up there with “the illusion of images [that] could be converted into a critique of the illusion of reality.” One solution in this “world that really has been turned on its head” is for the possession of a firearm to be mandated of every man and woman in the US (like the possession of auto insurance). Every new born would be required to own a gun. Akin to the right to a public defender, if you cannot afford one, one will be provided for you. That way we could finally get on with addressing the educational, infrastructure, and economic challenges facing our nation today without constantly being concerned about the erosion of our second amendment.

            Ranciere ends The Misadventure chapter with this hoped for approach to life within the soup of spectacle:

“This is what a process of political subjectivation consists in: in the action of uncounted capacities that crack open the unity of the given and the obviousness of the visible, in order to sketch a new topography of the possible. Collective understanding of emancipation is not the comprehension of a total process of subjection. It is the collectivization of capacities invested in scenes of dissensus. It is the employment of the capacity of anyone whatsoever, of the quality of human beings without qualities. As I have said, these are unreasonable hypotheses. Yet I believe that today there is more to be sought and found in the investigation of this power than in the endless task of unmasking fetishes or the endless demonstration of the omnipotence of the beast.” (pg. 49)

            On 10/7/2010 the AP ran a short article by Ryan J. Foley covering what could be construed as one of these “action[s] of uncounted capacities that crack open the unity of the given and the obviousness of the visible,” a scene of dissensus, “of the quality of human beings without qualities.” It seems that the former editor of the (Wisconsin) Stoughton Courier Hub, Autumn Drussell, was demoted for revealing to her readers her actual (big box store) shopping habits, and relaying the advice given to local area small businesses by their own Chamber of Commerce (at a luncheon she attended). The paper’s advertising clientele demanded she be ousted. The last line of this article (what Harry Shearer likes to refer to as the buried lead) makes it tenuous to embrace Ranciere’s “unreasonable hypotheses” (as attractive as it may be):

“Stephen Ward, a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism ethics expert, called her demotion draconian and chilling. “It really sends a signal that only certain ideas are legitimate,” he said.”

Perfectly Correct

October 1, 2010

            The 2010 Bryn Du Art Show, “Media Rhythm,” opened in Granville, OH on September 29th. It runs through October 8th and is open afternoons. The show is just chock full of extremely well crafted work. It runs the gamut from weavings, woodworking/carvings through paintings (oil, acrylic, watercolor), drawings and photos. The works are primarily representational consisting of a great deal of landscapes, animals, flowers, and some portraits/figures. These are meticulous, precise, and though not photo realism, extremely self conscious of being sure to be “read’ for what they represent. The “non objective” work is easily missed, blending into the background almost like wallpaper unless it is highlighted or set apart. One could easily leave with the impression of just having visited a room full of perfectly coifed, manicured, and elegantly dressed models if it were not for the wide spectrum of works, and the knowledge that the various individual artists were giving this presentation their all.

            Oddly enough, the work brought to mind some of what Jacques Ranciere writes about in The Emancipated Spectator (Verso, 2009). Ranciere writes about the various regimes of culture/art within the distribution of sense in the west. He associates them historically with the classical period spawning the ethical regime, the renaissance the representative, the age of revolutions the aesthetic regime. There is no one-to-one correlation with a specific historic period; the influence of any can be found present within cultural aspects today. At first glance, the Bryn Du Art Show appears to be exemplary of the representative regime. Works done during that phase (prior to the aesthetic disconnect) tried to associate a given subject matter with a given form of presentation (depending on class, status, gender, etc.). But this analysis falls apart when trying to account for the large number of landscape works. Landscape within the representative regime was primarily an afterthought, background unless pointed out (like the abstract paintings within this show). Landscape did not begin its ascendency as a stand alone endeavor (in the west) until the aesthetic break with the representative regime. The focus of most of the pieces in this particular show is too much on specifically associating the work (methodology, subject matter, etc.), the aesthetic or emotional response, and the representation itself (except for style, “mimicking” photo realism). This negates the disjunctive, disconnected quality of the aesthetic regime. Oddly enough, there is sufficient evidence present that retains the aesthetic emphasis predominant in the art of the west during the last 100 years.  These works appear to defy Ranciere’s description of the representative AND aesthetic regimes while embracing the “ends” established by modernism (definitive of the aesthetic). What is going on here?

            If we look upstream (as Francois Jullien always suggests), we find a curious synthesis. Though on the surface the works in this show appear varied in style, media or presentation, they all leave one with the impression of perfection. In perusing the show, one can easily believe that one’s purpose for being there is to appreciate the perfection of the works selected. Within the descriptions or analyses of all the regimes is the underlying presumption of correctness. Being defined within the distribution of sense (of any particular regime) is not enough. It must be done so properly, correctly. Propriety plays a huge part in the works displayed within the Bryn Du Mansion. In that sense they are a hybrid of the aesthetic and the representative. They must be “properly” landscapes, animal representations, or portraits (any variance will find the work cast into the “abstract” category). Likewise, their presentation must be appropriate to the type of landscape, figurative or abstract work attempted (no “comments” on society or political undertones, allegories, etc.). Placing them squarely in the aesthetic is the disconnection of the “genre” of work attempted (landscape oil, landscape watercolor, wood work utilitarian, woodwork representational carving, etc.) with the intended “appreciative” response. It needn’t look like a particular site, individual human, animal, floral, or abstract composition but it needs to leave one with the sense (communal sense) that this rendition of presentation has been done correctly, that is, with the (communal) sense that one associates with “great artistic work.”  This appreciation of perfection is disconnected from any specific destination, i.e. function, design, or definition. It is not an appreciation of the work as exemplary of a particular category; not a “perfect” example, but rather an example of “perfection”. These works likewise fall into the representative regime NOT because what is portrayed is rendered appropriate to the subject matter, but because the material piece is rendered appropriate to its designated category (abstract oil, acrylic landscape, watercolor barn scene, etc.). To present an oil-paint-like seascape rendition with watercolor paint or chalk pastels would be completely inappropriate (and not included). GOK art has no place here (Gawd Only Knows art). On this account, the show falls into a distribution of sense which is best described as a hybridization of the aesthetic and the representative regime, but not at all the original descriptions of either. It is this emphasis on correctness, on propriety, that establishes the particular distribution of sense abundant within this cultural presentation (not a hair out of place, nor nail unclipped, or shirt tail untucked). In a very weird way, it is exemplary of Ranciere’s dissensus in that the various works are, each in their own way, a celebration of being perfectly correct.