Archive for June, 2011

Existing Only In Contemplation Of The Law

June 28, 2011

            A past  posting of this blog, On The Banks Of The Styx (3-18-11), noted the conspicuous absence of response by the large corporate citizenry of Japan following the tsunami catastrophe. I may have been wrong. They may have rushed in along with the local and international relief aid. It may all have been done covertly without fanfare or notice. Really? There was no end to the indications that Walmart or Pepsi had extended aid to the residents of the gulf coast after Katrina. BP continues to remind us of how much they have done to make these self same residents whole after their oil well disaster.

            The US has received a plethora of tragedy this year to date. In addition to historic storms wiping out entire communities, there has also been almost continuous flooding and its aftermath. Now there is fire. These occurrences are always accompanied by generous relief efforts, both from the much maligned government as well as individuals, local residents and members of charities. Again, there is an acute lack of corporate involvement (though the petroleum institute continuously reminds us of what a disaster it would be to tax them). As mentioned before, it could be a conscious marketing strategy to fly under the radar and go unnoticed as good Samaritans. Really?

            Richard Powers’ essay entitled An Artificial Being in the volume Making Things Public (Latour/Weibel) sheds some light on the why and wherefore of this lack. Fortunately Richard did all the legwork to track down the events of conditions and characteristics otherwise taken as given. The recent Supreme Court ruling reaffirming corporations’ rights to all the protections of the constitution and its amendments created a one day uproar over how this could be. Precedent was set in a 19th century Supreme Court decision that referenced the protections granted under the 14th amendment. As Powers points out, that amendment protected any individual from being denied due process and equal protection under the law. Prior to this Richard cites the origins of corporations in the US, the Supreme Court ruling in 1819,Dartmouth vs. Woodward.  He quotes Chief Justice Marshall describing the definitive properties of corporations: “Among the most important are immortality, and, if the expression may be allowed, individuality:” Well, the expression has not only been allowed, but taken as law. Why then aren’t these “individuals” joining their fellow citizens in aid and comfort when catastrophes occur?

            Powers goes on to quote Marshall as establishing the originating definition of corporations from which all else has evolved and become. “A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of the law.” This simple statement enlightens the absence of these individuals within the midst of disaster and economic hardship. Being invisible, they won’t be seen. Being intangible, they won’t be felt. But above all, their only existence is ”in contemplation of the law”. Without legal compulsion, they are not. They only exist in “contemplation of the law”.

No Prosthetic Currently Available

June 23, 2011

            Fundraising time at the local public television station. Time to wheel out the doo wop daddies and the various charlatans of health and financial well being (Recently unemployed and homeless? No problem. What an amazing opportunity for becoming a gazillionaire!). All this exceptional “regular” featured programming displaces the normally scheduled Frontline exposé of where the money really goes. Incentives for membership have become “media sized” with coffee cups, T’s and key chains taking a back seat to books, CD’s and DVD’s. One offering was for “You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid Or Crazy?!” Who could resist?

            The book is actually You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid Or Crazy?!: a self-help book for adults with Attention Deficit Disorder, by Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo (both having been diagnosed with this disorder). The representation of ADD, its diagnosis, symptoms, treatments, etc. are excellent. Kelly and Ramundo point out that its variations make it a slippery subject, with what appear to be contradictory manifestations each being attributed to ADD. But the book’s intent is to be a “self-help” practical guide to dealing with the everyday of this condition. It is here that it leaves the reader begging the question as to “if this is a disorder, I wonder what ‘normal’ is”. Their practical tips, suggestions and strategies for managing “things” after this diagnosis read like Norman Vincent Peale’s “How to Make Friends and Influence People”. ADDers are described as being adverse to writing, organization and rules. The solution is- you guessed it- ways to get organized and create rules, most of which entail a great deal of writing! Recognizing the affliction is key to dealing with it. But this otherwise scientifically oriented text suggests what other’s have repeatedly promoted as essential to successful living since before ADD was ever imagined, let alone identified. These other texts never referenced any scientifically determined disorder as a reason to heed their expertise.

            Shades of Foucault! One senses “the idle mind is the devil’s workshop” lurking in the shadows. The underlying assumption (that although afflicted with a neurological disorder that is part and parcel of one’s being, you too can be a productive, successful member of society. Don’t let what it is you are keep you from being what it is you can be.) sounds a lot like the age old Christian teaching of original sin, where a hereditary defect is part and parcel of one’s created being. Some ancient writers even went so far as to describe this as a happy curse, an opportunity for joyous redemption. Kelly and Ramundo do likewise with a final chapter that celebrates the uniqueness of those with ADD (“From Obstacle to Opportunity”). The parallels are uncanny. Thus the religious approach to being wonderful while being defective, hence the religious appeal of Norman Vincent Peale (no pun intended), and Kelly and Ramundo’s creatively lacking “ditto”. The surprise isn’t with Kelly and Ramundo, who genuinely want to empower others afflicted with this condition to be in control of their destiny. The surprise is that, although understanding and representation of this condition is attributed to scientific inquiry and expertise, science is mute with regards to living with this condition in the everyday. Accumulating the data (evidence) that the world’s oceans are on the verge of demise is one thing. Saying what needs to be done, in what order, priority and degree is another. It is on the latter point that science exerts no authority, is silent, both in regards to the condition of the oceans as well as that of ADD. It is regarding this “matter of concern” that Latour and Weibel suggest the authority comes from the assembly, rather than the science (data, study, etc.). The surprise with Kelly and Ramundo is that, if they represent an aspect of assembly, then the “making public” of living with this condition hasn’t shifted much from the age old religious “making public” of living with the knowledge that what accounts for the propensity to screw up when the intention is to do right is the fact that one was created with a hereditary defect by an omnipotent creator (who may also be an ADDer).

What Did Malcolm X Think About Women?

June 15, 2011

            That was the headline for an MSN homepage article. Were they always in his thoughts? What did they appear as? Did he ever “reveal” his thoughts to anyone?

            The hidden bias of media language is that if it appears, it must be someone’s thoughts/thinking. This is a bizarre hybrid of the Freudian unconscious and the all-too-apparent found in present media dominated culture. Does Anthony Weiner “reveal” his thoughts in his Tweets or emails? Whether ambition or vanity (how I wish to be seen) are “thoughts” is never considered. It is undeniable that he desired the recipient to be cognizant of his performance. Today he remorsefully admits “What was I thinking?”. In the case of Malcolm X, or anyone else for that matter, all we have is the documentation, what was made public. With Making Things Public (referenced in previous posts of this blog), the “thing” is political with its determination arrived at through assembly (or violence). Today’s cultural quick link of what is made public to what is thought elides what Latour and Weibel propose. This cultural bias hearkens the even weirder Hegelian notion of the Idea and the “progression” of thought through historic time. OK, so what Lebron James thinks may or may not come out in his spoken conversation and interviews. But does documentation of his athletic performance or lifestyle sustain the assumption of this being thought? Documentation and media events (writings, movie footage and video, still photo’s, conversational transcripts, etc.) are not on a par with real time conversation, musing, interview. As pointed out in the 2/18/11 post (Something That Is And Is Not), media driven culture has a marked preference for what is documented as opposed to what is first hand account or eyewitness testimony. The slippage of documentation becoming “thought” is attractively alluring, even Hegel was seduced by it. All the work Latour and Weibel put into Making Things Public flies out the window if documentation is taken for thought, whether in the cloud or on a jumbo Tron. I take their point to be that the very existence of such documentation is political, not that it is a Hegelian version of the Idea as it evolves through time. While alive, Malcolm X did think. What Andrew Breitbart made public is a “thing”, not a life.

How Are Things To Be Seen?

June 11, 2011

            It was a small ceramic figurehead on a wall of the boutique, a smiling face. Alongside was a text, not surprising given the statistical preference of buyers for objects accompanied by narrative. It was in memory of a friend who passed away and how the artist looked for that smile to appear in the places it had inhabited in the past.

            Did the artist do this to please herself? Once pleased, was it now available to please me, second hand so to speak? Did the artist do this to please me? Did she relinquish part of herself, her private moment now become public, never to be private again? Would it have been enough to just have the smiling face, or was the meaning of the smile what separated the caricature from kitsch? Did the meaning please or did it just distinguish the pleasure? Is pleasure distinguishable?

            The last essay in the Making Things Public catalog (see prior post Ding Politik May 24, 2011) is one by Peter Weibel, entitled Art and Democracy: People Making Art Making People. It is a synopsis of western art with the turning point of Greek classical art and its relation to democracy. It is also a synopsis of the show for which this is a catalog. The bent is heavily political but from the materialist perspective of the thing and making it public. Although the aesthetic interpretation parallels Ranciere’s description of the Aesthetic regime, the political interpretation differs in that it is from the materialist perspective.

            Making Things Public could also be described as How Things Are To Be Seen. Although this synopsis of history heavily favors the northern European/French perspective (as to how things are seen), it does make a compelling statement as to the intertwining of things and politics. Weibel notes the opening of the Louvre and its accumulation of cultural artifacts in 1794 as distinguishing what had previously been the domain of the monarchy/aristocracy and religious hierarchy to that which became public. He acknowledges the centrality of the bourgeois in this revolutionary move and traces it up through its maturing in the Aesthetic regime (also described by Ranciere). It differs somewhat from Ranciere’s account in that Weibel maintains a hierarchical status for the modus operandi of the art, from what he describes as the artes liberales of classicism, through the artes mechanicae to today’s art of technology/mixed media. In a sense these various methodologies retain the hierarchical appropriateness of Ranciere’s Representative regime while simultaneously partaking of dissensus (demanding their rightful place where they have previously not been included). For Weibel, today’s techno art created through the use of generically ubiquitous tools partakes of this “progression” (dare I call it that?) through its facilitation of informing how things are to be seen. Within this engagement, the contemporary artist is presenting the viewer with operating instructions which then make possible the multiple perspectives of representation of the assembled reality. Weibel references Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass (“To Be Looked At, With One Eye, Close To, For Almost An Hour”); which brings us round to the place of the narrative alongside the smiling faced figure, and why it is there today whereas fifty years ago it would not have accompanied the offerings of an art boutique.

            So today, in art/politics (the interface for both Ranciere and Latour/Weibel) we are instructing each other on how things are to be seen. Literally we are asking others to walk in our shoes, except in this case it would rather be to wear our eyeglasses or contacts. But what if we’ve opted for Lasiks?

            A curious perspective of Weibel’s synopsis appears when one asks the questions I posed regarding the creation of the small smiling figure. With the opening of the Louvre in 1794, there was an immediate access to the creativity of previous cultural workers. But what of the “post opening” crowd of cultural workers and their production? The bourgeois with which Weibel articulates his synopsis is notoriously private in its hoarding and accumulating propensities. It is convenient for a brief history of western art to posit the Making Things Public through its cultural artifacts, art and things but the actuality is of an intermediary action ( ““Art is a form of action,” he [Rothko] wrote, or to be more precise: “Art is not only a form of action it is a form of social action. For art is a type of communication, and when it enters the environment it produces its effects just as any other action does.”” Pg.1030). The “social action” of hoarding, accumulating, privatizing this “action” called art is very much a part of the history of western art (the Aesthetic regime) as well as contemporary art (whether the artifacts of the past as well as other cultures, or the “informational” techno art activity of today). The Louvre may have sprung Athena-like from the cultural archives of the French in 1794 but since then most art made public has been mediated through “private” collectors as well as the “private” ambitions of artists. Only after this activity has been private does it become public. To focus on the public exclusively within how things are to be seen is to assign a part-that-has-no-part to what is private.

            Did the artist do this to please herself? Once pleased, was it now available to please me, second hand so to speak? Did the artist do this to please me? Did she relinquish part of herself, her private moment now become public, never to be private again? Would it have been enough to just have the smiling face, or was the meaning of the smile what separated the caricature from kitsch? Did the meaning please or did it just distinguish the pleasure? Is pleasure distinguishable?

            Ultimately this references The Undocumented Life (May 14, 2011). Is it possible to answer “How Things Are To Be Seen” privately?


Another Great Day In The Neighborhood

June 3, 2011

            Today, the neighborhood news is available instantly. One can access the Arab Spring though one doesn’t live in the hood, or Rio’s Olympic urban spring cleaning for that matter. “For a portrait to be possible, it is therefore necessary that some closeness is thinkable.” (Chris S. Herzfeld in an essay What Is It Like to Be Face to Face with a Great Ape? in Making Things Public, pg. 390). I guess the same could be said for neighborhood. Many folks commute across town, county or state and find they mostly just sleep where it is they “live” (as in reside, since you can’t “live” in a post office box). Some do actually still claim a neighborhood. And what distinguishes such neighborhood news is “that some closeness is thinkable.”

            Neighborhood news appears with the neighborhood newspapers, radio and TV. All of which appear online as well as in print, etc. One of the online version’s unique aspects is the instantaneous comment/response that was impossible with print only, and which current radio/TV news programming is trying to integrate. Editorials retain their hierarchical resonance since ultimately those contributing do so as part of their paid profession. Guest columns (letters to the editor) reflect more a neighbor’s passion motivated, but prepared viewpoint. It is the immediate, almost obsessive/compulsive comments/responses to news articles, editorials and letters to the ed that give an unvarnished barometric reading of the mood in the hood.

            True, true, true, it is only a sampling of those who bother to respond, or have some axe to grind, or need to see their words appear on screen that deposits this residue of opinion. The accumulation does leave a stain though, a trace of what the neighborhood is up to. If this were a work of visual art by some celebrity artist in a large urban venue, that would be considered more than appropriate to ooh and ahh over.

            Here, deep in the heartland, strange convolutions presently appear on this digital Rorschach inkblot. For sure, government is to blame (few defenders there). Capitalist enterprise is a white knight out to slay the socialist dragon. But then things get murky and muddled. Government is corrupted by business (not representing the aspirations of the wonderful folk who still burn votive candles at their populist shrines to R. R.). Yet business needs to operate without the restraints of government regulations. To top it off, the wee folk need to pay less taxes, but the large businesses need to be entirely tax free (and incentivized) in order for the small people to have jobs and a shot at their piece of the shrinking American pie. The ads that accompany these exchanges (and make all of this possible) ask if you own an oil or gas company? (and of course you do), and promulgate how important coal is to energy production (always with the “clean” adjective), and that it would be ludicrous to tax energy now with the economy the way it is, etc.

            The curious “thing” about contemporary portraits, what differentiates them from those embodied within the “representative regime”, is their isolation, their emphasis of the subject alone (not within the trappings of class, status, or employment). Within the paradigm of the aesthetic regime, they assume that “anyone could be anything”. Donald Trump could be the undercover boss and Bristol Palin could be a dance star (a diamond in the rough). What they don’t show (by design) is the interconnectedness of the subject with that outside the subject. The representation of cosmos is absent, unthinkable. The comments/responses bear this out. Attempts to link what goes on in the hood with what is going on outside the neighborhood are dismissed, not particularly by an absence of logic, reason, clarity or comprehension, but for lack “that some closeness is thinkable.”