Archive for August, 2013

All Too Human

August 29, 2013

USAToday ran an article on 8-29-13 entitled “Chimps battle to be top banana in art contest”. The Humane Society of the United States sponsored a painting competition to benefit the various primate sanctuaries in the US. The artist entrants were the resident chimps, who painted utilizing techniques employed historically (at one time or another) by their more evolved peers (with their hair, tongue, eating the paint, etc.). Jane Goodall (a non artist herself but considered an “artist” authority) judged the entries. The Humane Society (accomplished “artist” administrators) curated the show. The various sanctuaries consumed the award prizes.

“he [Pierre Bourdieu] defines the field of cultural production as an arena centrally and invariably organized by dominant forms, run “by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital.”…Every individual instance is “a manifestation of the field as a whole, in which all the powers of the field, and all the determinisms inherent in its structure and functioning, are concentrated.”” (Wai Chee Dimock, Weak Theory: Henry James, Colm Toibin, and W.B. Yeats, Critical Theory Summer 2013 pg. 734)

Award Winning Painting
Cheetah’s award-winning painting. / Humane Society of the United States

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Life Is Short

August 26, 2013

Life is short, so one should enjoy it. Life is short, so one should find meaning in it. These two admonitions create a certain tension. Much continental philosophy and aesthetic theory reflects this tension within their discourse. Enjoyment seems to be not enough for a satisfying aesthetic experience. Meaning, as the basis of action and philosophy, elides the mundane, the everyday, the material.

Karl Marx was born in 1818; Ralph Waldo Emerson 15 years earlier. Emerson died in 1882; Marx a year later (roughly as contemporary as Mick Jagger and Jon Bon Jovi). Charles Darwin was a fellow rock star (1809-1882). Both Marx and Emerson were influenced by Hegel and his writings, philosophy and approach. It is hard to believe that Darwin did not know of Hegel. Volumes have been written on these contemporaries. Nothing new here. Suffice to say Emerson evolved Hegel different than Marx. Marx threw out the “spirit” aspect of meaning and replaced it by what makes for meaning within the capitalist status quo of the time – material. Emerson, perhaps much more cognizant of actual human bondage (than Marx) because of his everyday experience of living in a land where humans were considered material within the capitalist status quo (could be bought, sold and treated legally as property), focused on the “spirit” aspect, but without necessarily discarding the material. We all think we know what is attributed to Marx re: religion, but no memory permeates today of Emerson’s disposition to material, what makes for physical experience.

Capitalism’s emphasis on the material as fundamental to value (and meaning) differs little from Marx’s emphasis on the material as fundamental to value and meaning. The how’s and the why’s may differ but the material as foundational does not. Materialism determines value and meaning with either. In that they are brothers. Within continental philosophy this fraternal relationship seems to surface and reify with the thought and production of Guy DeBord and his Society of the Spectacle. The ultimate evolution of this affinity of meaning and value is found with Baudrillard’s writing on our culture, and simulacra (with regard to the values and meaning of materialism expressed as such). Emerson finds meaning and value with what is not tangible. Within his writing he advocates that what is not tangible has a bearing on the conduct of life and the determination of meaning. Early within his essay “The Poet” he writes “The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.” (again the Hegelian influence?). From DeBord and Baudrillard we associate expression today with material – material presence and the material being that accompanies “having”. Even the meaning and value of words and language changes within the hegemony of materialism. Emerson is also known for having been a poet, part of his appreciation and valorization of language (in a Marxist sense?). Language as material, maybe not, but as a material (sensual) experience, for sure, for sure. And therein lies the separation from the tension of continental philosophy, of meaning and enjoyment. For Emerson, to enjoy produces meaning. Within the materialist disposition (capitalist or socialist), the meaning that is material (that material “is”) does not necessarily correlate with or produce enjoyment (Jay Leno may have a lot of “stuff”, but is that what brings joy to his life?). Life is short. One should enjoy it as that is the only way to find meaning within the short span. But what brings joy? For Emerson, this was a (and “the”) philosophic question, something to be considered critically. It would be presumptuous (and flippant) to give the knee jerk answer as a distraction, past time, religious conviction or addiction. Joy for Emerson isn’t automatic, predetermined or guaranteed, but rather involves the half of a person that is not “his expression.”

The Pig

August 19, 2013

Saturday mornings find me in our local rendition of Bouville at the Makers Market. Due to the demise of my bees I am resigned to peddling my own wares this year. The Makers Market is a shadow market to the official farmers market run by the Downtown Business Association. It is caddy corner to the Makers Market and is quite pricey to break bread with. One of the benefits of being a spider at the Makers Market is that one gets to observe the flies across the way. Parents bring their kids (of course), some leashed, some not, and some in strollers or belly/back packs. People bring their dogs (yes, more than one); some leashed, some not, some even in strollers and belly/back packs. Sometimes a cat makes the scene. Never a dull moment. This past week end a little pink pig appeared on a leash leading a slender young lady. She was accompanied by a tall man in a bona fide chef outfit that gave him a certain Ramsey-esque authority (crowds parted before him as they perused the offerings). Both wore name tags, “Chef” and “Head of University Dining Services”. The nearby college has recently contracted for locally sourced gourmet cuisine to be served in the dining halls.

The woman attached to the pig wore a long grey dress that brushed the ground. She had only stubble on her head, one step removed from being bald, and she suffered from bad acne. She was barefoot. Health was exuded, head to toe. OK, point made. All the aesthetic markers created by a lifetime (and more) of art history scholars presented themselves. Statement made, performance art, commercial at that. Fifty years ago hooter madchens handed out packs of Marlboros and Virginia Slims on fringes of universities. Today it is acne and a pig.

That evening Moyers ran a rerun with Marshall Ganz on Making Social Movements Matter. The overall theme of the show was How People Power Generates Change. “Change” would be the optimal word, something that ostensibly unites Moyers, the lady with the pig, and myself (without others we cannot be whole!). My résumé having included “swineherd” at one time, a certain peculiar kind of nostalgia swept over me there in our very own beautiful downtown Bouville. For some reason, I did not experience this sense of solidarity; with Moyers, the pig and Sartre’s Roquentin maybe, but not with Chef Ramsey, his ward, and their employer. Within the course of the interview Marshall Ganz iterated: “You know, Albert Hirschman, the development economist wrote this book a number of years ago, I’m sure you know about it, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.” And sort of the idea was, okay, so you got an institution. And it’s screwing up. And so one way to fix it is to exercise voice. The other way is you can exit. The market solutions are all exit solutions.” Followed by: “Well, so you don’t like the way the schools work, exit, make your own over here. And that way you exercise choice. You don’t like the way public health works, exit, over here, make your own. Now the only problem is you can only exit and make your own if you got the money to do it. And so the result is that you create these parallel systems of elite systems that are, you know, that fragment the whole.”

My Superhero

August 12, 2013

Disney, Marvel Comics, Superheroes. Last night’s news showed a little boy in a little wheel chair wearing a miniature Spiderman costume with mask. “Who’s tougher, Spiderman or Batman?” his mother asked. “Spidey!” came the cry of glee from behind the mask. The child really IS tough, having barely survived being shot in a crossfire at a neighborhood park his mother brought him to for his enjoyment. But the kids aren’t the ones feeding the meter for the recent history of superhero films and their continuous sequels. These films are enormously popular with today’s big kids. Someone/something is creating an identity/connection with having (genetically) unique, exceptional and extra ordinary capabilities and whatever reason it is that makes grown-ups decide to part with their pay on a particular film rather than another (movies are rated in terms of how much money they bring in over a designated stretch of time, not because of any “enduring quality” of the film). To say that being set apart from mere mortals by the ability to fly down the sidewalk on a surf board, or flutter like a bat, swing across town on silken threads, become a walking flame, etc. is for whatever reason desirable would be an understatement. Having the capacity to do something that no one else can do would be like being the sole winner of the largest lottery jackpot, or raking in the royalties from possessing the intellectual property rights on something that humans cannot do without. Oh, it’s just a fantasy like Shrek.

My fantasy of a superhero would be someone named “Just Another Brick In The Wall.” It’s kind of hard to imagine Commissioner Gordon or some ensconced government politico saying “This is a job for Just Another Brick In The Wall.” Or “Thank Gawd for Just Another Brick In The Wall. We couldn’t have done it without her!” Besides, how would Just Another Brick In The Wall enter and exit, distinguish himself from other mere mortals?

I think we need some action movies featuring Just Another Brick In The Wall as a superhero, able to save the world through the exceptional and extra ordinary capabilities (genetically) unique to Just Another Brick In The Wall. Maybe Just Another Brick In The Wall action figures. Often I find myself absorbed in conversations with various of the same folks subsidizing contemporary superhero flicks. After recounting another memorable weekend consuming the box office flavor of the week, we sometimes discuss things like education opportunities for their kids, the globally over heated world their offspring will live in (and they will retire to!), or the increasing polarization (and becoming ever weirder ratio) of the distribution of wealth. Sometimes the conversation will actually break free from the knee jerk references to recent releases like Elysium and we’ll become grounded in the local, the everyday, what we share in common, the neighborhood playground where someone’s child has been hurt through senseless violence, etc. It’s uncanny (and sad) that we part with sighs of relief that we are not like that, that doesn’t involve us. The backyard we just talked about is not mine. We are (genetically) unique. Our identity revolves around our exceptional and extra ordinary capabilities. After all, ya gotta sell yourself to get/keep a job these days!

The Good

August 9, 2013

Recollection returns the admiration Dr. Tew expressed for the single, solitary bee during some long ago assembly of Ohio beekeepers. He was awestruck that this individual would exit the colony where there is the support of her fellows, and the safety of numbers, to fly off into the great unknown. I guess it stuck with me by the way he presented it, rather analytically from a scientist’s perspective – someone who has spent his life studying bees. We tend to knee jerk anthropomorphize anything not “like us”. Forgotten is that butterflies, bees and other insects don’t “know” what is out there. Off they go into the very, and always, immediate unknown.
My neighbor is not right. No, not in an argumentative sense, rather he has been unlike his fellows in thought, behavior, and socialization since birth. Today I guess he would be described as challenged, or severely disabled though he gets around and lives alone. Many of us who live around him would describe him as a pain since it is almost impossible to communicate with him. He demands, and if the demand is not met, he curses loudly and vehemently (disabilities are not always as portrayed by Hollywood). Of late he has deemed himself to be our self-appointed evangelist. Have you gone to church? No matter what the response, he condemns you to hell (perhaps he’s lonely?). The latest is asking what is written on a piece of paper in his hand (which the committed do-gooder is more than willing to read for what he believes to be an illiterate. Not!). The scrawl spells “dread”, and of course, a sermon on going to hell with a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of assorted gospel invectives follows.
In The Gleam Of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson (2005) Naoko Saito tries to show the close connection between Dewey and Emerson, through some of the writing on this matter by Stanley Cavell (who considers the opposite). Emerson’s influence appears in Dewey’s early work and then in his later writings according to Saito. She addresses a major criticism of Dewey in a chapter entitled The Gleam of Light Lost: Transcending the Tragic with Dewy after Emerson, something both Emerson and Cavell address and wrestle with but Dewey is considered to have elided (all problems can be solved through a sound pragmatic approach). Curious insights that speak to our time arise out of the considerations of these various thinkers that Naoko brings together. Emerson (and then later Dewey) mourns/bemoans the “lost individual”, asleep to the life within/without ( Shades of the unexamined life is not worth living!). The emphasis with Emerson, and later through Saito’s interpretation of Dewey, is on setting forth, struggling to create/achieve meaning, to learn, to grow. Of course, no apparent end is given for all this setting forth, learning and growing. In contemporary times, this has been perverted as “process” – i.e. process art, or “the learning process”, etc. (but not processed food). The “process” has become the end (something Saito points out is NOT the case by referencing the role and place of imagination with morality in both the writings of Emerson and Dewey). Saito works hard to stress the difference between the valorization of today’s “process” and the role or place of struggle, setting forth, growth, etc. with Emerson, et al. She writes: “[T]he good is anything but guaranteed in advance; it is to be created ahead, as “consequences” in the future, or as Cavell says, proven only on the way. Potentiality is not “a category of existence” that is being unfolded. Instead, “potentialities cannot be known till after the interactions have occurred” in terms of “consequences”” (pg. 116).
And so the bee returns to the hive loaded down with pollen and a gut full of nectar after her adventure in the great unknown. Its fellows will be nourished by this contribution achieved with such great effort and peril. The future of the colony will be determined by this struggle with what it knows not. I think this is what Saito is pointing at. The scrawl of today, held up with any considerations of democracy, education or growth (taken in whatever sense), spells out “dread”. Forgotten is that a known outcome, a machine determined inevitability is not exactly how things happen. “The good is anything but guaranteed in advance; it is to be created ahead, as “consequences” in the future, or as Cavell says, proven only on the way.”