Thursday, April 30, 2009

There, Where The Dead Are Still Dancing And Singing

Fig. 1. Pompeian fresco (detail), c. 1st Century AD

The Dead Are Not Dead

Hearing things more than beings,
listening to the voice of fire,
the voice of water.
Hearing in wind the weeping bushes,
sighs of our forefathers.

The dead are never gone:
they are in the shadows.
The dead are not in earth:
they're in the rustling tree,
the groaning wood,
water that runs,
water that sleeps;
they're in the hut, in the crowd,
the dead are not dead.

The dead are never gone,
they're in the breast of a woman,
they're in the crying of a child,
in the flaming torch.
The dead are not in the earth:
they're in the dying fire,
the weeping grasses,
whimpering rocks,
they're in the forest, they're in the house,
the dead are not dead.

Birago Ishmael Diop (Senegalese, 1906-1989)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Where Banality Is Measured In Degrees Of Glamour

Fig. 1. Lucy Skaer - Die Belagerung, 2008

'One of the greatest satisfactions of the philosopher is to expose the fallacy in what has hitherto been accepted as a conclusive argument; and I suppose this can be as selfless as any satisfaction in making a contribution to general welfare. Equally satisfying, and equally altruistic, is to expose the fallacy in the fallacy - to demonstrate that it is not a fallacy after all, or not the sort of fallacy it was claimed to be. By this turn of the wheel, what was worth saving in the original argument gets rehabilitated, though it will never look quite the same.'

Monroe C. Beardsley

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Where Glamour Is Measured In Degrees Of Banality

Fig. 1. Jeff Koons - Baroque Egg with Bow, 1994-2006

'The banality that the psychology of the arts is partly the psychology of status has been repeatedly pointed out, not just by cynics and barbarians but by erudite social commentators such as Quentin Bell and Tom Wolfe. But in the modern university, it is unmentioned, indeed, unmentionable. Academics and intellectuals are culture vultures. In a gathering of today's elite, it is perfectly acceptable to laugh that you barely passed Physics for Poets and Rocks for Jocks and have remained ignorant of science ever since, despite the obvious importance of scientific literacy to informed choices about personal health and public policy. But saying that you have never heard of James Joyce or that you tried listening to Mozart once but prefer Andrew Lloyd Webber is as shocking as blowing your nose on your sleeve or announcing that you employ children in your sweatshop, despite the obvious unimportance of your tastes in leisure-time activity to do just about anything. The blending in people's minds of art, status, and virtue is an extension of Bell's principle of sartorial morality ... people find dignity in the signs of an honorably futile existence removed from all mental necessities.'

Steven Pinker

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Startling Speculation About The Secret Life Of Art

Fig. 1. Robert Motherwell - Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110, 1971

'It may be that the deep necessity of art is the examination of self- deception.'

Robert Motherwell

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Sunday Six: I Was Not There, I Am Not Here, Alas

Fig. 1. Anselm Kiefer - Erotik im Fernen Osten oder: Transition from cool to warm, 1977

Fig. 2. Beth Van Hoesen - Bay Boats, 1988

Fig. 3. Toshikatsu Endo - Allegory III, 1988

Fig. 4. Obras Escogidas Kcho - (Selected Works), 1994

Fig. 5. Ingrid Pollard - Untitled, Ceramic, 2008

Fig. 6. Sean Gutowski - Burning Ship, 2009

'My major regret in life is that my childhood was unnecessarily lonely.'

Truman Capote

Your Ears Will Orgasm #58: The Ship Song - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (MixPod Player)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Unpublished Reflections Of A 584-Year-Old Camera

Fig. 1. Laurie Simmons - Big Camera, Small Camera, 1977

'One day in 1425, Filippo Brunelleschi walked out onto the Piazza del Duomo in Florence. Standing at the main doors to the cathedral, facing the baptistery across the piazza, he set up a small wooden box on a stand. He had invited various influential friends and cognoscenti to witness his experiment. One by one they stepped up to this curious device and closed one eye to stare through a small hole in one side. To a twentieth-century observer, the only interpretation of this scene could be that of a photographer demonstrating a new camera. By expanding the definition of photography perhaps more than is acceptable, Brunelleschi's box could be considered a crude camera. For a citizen of fifteenth-century Florence, the effects of looking into this device were as mind-boggling and astounding as if seeing an actual camera for the first time. Peering into the small hole, they first saw a direct monocular view of the baptistery across the way. Then, by the flip of a lever, a mirror was moved into position and a small painting of the baptistery appeared, exactly in line and proportional to the direct view. In fact, with regard to geometry and form, the two were barely distinguishable. Brunelleschi had made a sharp right-hand turn out of the Middle Ages.

That Brunelleschi's demonstration seems so obvious to us today is a measure of its intellectual achievement - the more a revolutionary discovery shifts or even shatters the world view, the more commonplace it seems to the observers of subsequent ages. What he accomplished that day must have seemed to his contemporaries to be at the very limits of knowledge, as incredible, for example, as some of the quantum physicists' descriptions of our world seem to people of today. Prior to 1424, no one had ever painted an image that way. Historians describe this event as Brunelleschi's public pronouncement of the laws of linear perspective, which he is credited with discovering. There is certainly no doubt that his new system, along with its formalization and publication by his friend Leon Alberti twelve years later, irrevocably altered the history of painting and accelerated the development of techniques of artificial image making.

Describing Brunelleschi's breakthrough simply as the discovery of the vanishing point, however, places an inordinate emphasis on the picture itself as the locale of this revolutionary change. What Brunelleschi achieved was the personification of the image, the creation of a "point of view" and its identification with a place in real space. In doing so, he elevated the position of the individual viewer to an integral part of the picture by encoding this presence as the inverse, in absentia, source of the converging perspectival lines. The picture became an opaque mirror for the viewer, and the viewer, in turn, became the embodiment of the painter, "completing the picture" as art historians like to say, with the two points of view merging in a single physical spot. The painter now says when he or she paints, "See things as I see them. ... Stand in my shoes." Consequently, the picture plane and the retina became the same surface. Of course, "Whose retina?" was the key question, as the manipulation of the viewer, an early form of behaviorism, was added to the list of artistic techniques.

In the dialogue between viewer and image, there were now three entities where formerly there had been two, or possibly even one. (One in the sense that most images, as thoroughly two-dimensional diagrammatic and/or schematic representations, were previously used as a sacred vehicle to achieve a state of union between the viewer and the divinity.) The image was to be taken to heart within the individual, with the concurrent loss of self-identity so common to religious experience, thus forming the single image of "self/deity." It was an evocation rather than a description (the picture evoked the god or goddess within, it did not describe him or her without).

With the new identification of the viewer with the painter, rather than with the sacred object, came the placement of both of them relative to a third entity, the nearby physical object(s) or subject of the painting, and along with this possibly the inauguration of the process of encroachment of the individual ego (i.e., the artist's) onto the image in the visual arts.

In the Brunelleschian world, the mechanism is perception, the image retinal. When the emphasis is on the act of seeing at a physical place, then time enters the picture as well ("if it's here, it's not there - if it's now, it's not then"). Images become "frozen moments." They become artifacts of the past. In securing a place on earth, they have accepted their own mortality.'

Bill Viola ('The Temporal Image' from Video Black: The Mortality of the Image)

Friday, April 24, 2009

In Some Very Rare Hour The First Word Of A Poem*

Fig. 1. Mequitta Ahuja - Fount, 2009

'[Philosophical] ideas by themselves change nothing in the life of an individual. Without the practical knowledge of how to bring great ideas into the heart and even the tissues of the body, philosophy cannot take us very far. Systems, explanations, clarifications, proof - through these modern man squanders his attention on the intellectual function while remaining cut-of from the emotional and instinctual sides of his nature, wherein reside the most powerful energies of our being, and without the corresponding development of which no authentic moral power is possible.'

Jacob Needleman

* 'For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - only then can it happen that in come very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.' (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Because In This Nakedness The Spirit Finds Its Rest*

Fig. 1. Anselm Kiefer - Erotik im Fernen Osten oder: Transition from cool to warm, 1977

'As the eye, so the object.'

William Blake

* St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Eyes In The Backs Of Our Heads Aren't Our Own

Fig. 1. Jo Ann Callis - Woman with Wet Hair, 1978

'The self is not the cumulative result of repeated surrenders to the demands of rationality.'

Wayne Froman (from Lyotard: Philosophy, Politics and the Sublime)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Always In The Same Movie, Never In The Same Scene

Fig. 1. Hiroshi Sugimoto - Ohio Theatre, Ohio 1980

'If I seem on the verge of superstition, please recall that the images we make are part of our minds, they are living organisms that carry on our mental lives for us, darkly, whether we pay them any mind or not.'

Hollis Frampton

Monday, April 20, 2009

Because "The World" Has Never Been Photographed

Fig. 1. Andreas Gursky - Atlanta, 1996

'A photograph isn't what was photographed. It's something else. It's a new fact.'

Garry Winograd

Addendum: The Eyebrows Have It (click image)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Sunday Six: Actually ... Caesar's Numinous Nine*

Fig. 1. Coming Undone

Fig. 2. Precious

Fig. 3. Roundabout

Fig. 4. Ebb Tide

Fig. 5. Monday's Child

Fig. 6. Metatron

Fig. 7. Blessed

Fig. 8. Distant Thunder

Fig. 9. Wallflowers

'One's real life is so often the life that one does not lead.'

Oscar Wilde

Your Ears Will Orgasm #57: Animental - Animal Collective Mix - (Mix) (MixPod Player)

* Ray Caesar's Website

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Untitled (In Advance Of A Larder Empty Of Old Art)*

Fig. 1. Myfanwy MacLeod - Untitled (brancusi), 2009

'Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.'

Isidore Ducasse

* Marcel Duchamp - In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1915

Friday, April 17, 2009

Mysteries At The Gauzy Juncture Of Light And Night

Fig. 1. Mark Rothko - The Rothko Chapel, 1964-71 (Houston, Texas)

'Light, as the medium in which we perceive objects, is often regarded atmospherically as a veil. The continual overlays of thin washes in Rothko, which produce his glimmering and flaring lights, are like veils. Veil imagery is traditional in revelatory art. The only way that mysteries can be presented in art, as Pico della Mirandola, for one, argued, is by veils or symbols. The rhetoric of veils and secreted mystery is implicit in Rothko, and is one source of that feeling which his work has of carrying a momentous but illusive [sic] subject. It is the peril of veil- and symbol-users that the veil or symbol becomes substantial and beautiful in its own right, thus interposing its form before that of the mystery it is supposed to serve. In Rothko the veils have solidified and become the substance of the mystery. His is an art in which traditional forms of mystery and sublimity have been retained (obliquely, and even subliminally). Radiance and solemnity have an iconography, and Rothko, as a result of his desire for an art of calm and violence ("tranquility tinged with Terror," to quote Burke) has repossessed certain past themes of art on his own terms.'

Lawrence Alloway (from The American Sublime)

Your Ears Will Orgasm #56: Philip Glass - Trial 1, Entrance (from Einstein on the Beach) (MixPod Player)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Here In The Very Public Privacy Of My Very Own Text

Fig. 1. Alighiero Boetti - Order and Disorder, 1985-86

'[Our] notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable "I." We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind's string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its author.


It is a good idea ... to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.'

Joan Didion (from On Keeping a Notebook)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Half A Dozen Crotchets From The Pudenda Cadenza

Fig. 1. Judy Chicago - Virginia Woolf plate (The Dinner Party), 1974–79

Fig. 2. Tracey Emin - Self-Portrait, 12.11.01, 2001

Fig. 3. Patty Chang - Doll, 2001

Fig. 4. Vanessa Beecroft - VB45.900.ali, 2001

Fig. 5. Tanja Ostojic - After Courbet, L´origin du Monde, 2004

Fig. 6. Marlene Dumas - Skaam, 2009

Pudenda Agenda by Jerry Saltz

Vagina envy. Everybody knows it's as prevalent as penis envy and probably more intrinsic, given that the mother of all envies may be caused by the inability to give birth. To settle a wager about which gender has better sex, Zeus and Hera asked Tiresias, who for reasons I won't go into here had spent seven years as a woman. When he chose women by a ratio of nine to one, Hera was so enraged she struck him blind. Zeus took pity and gave him the gifts of prophecy and long life, and the rest - as we know - is Oedipus.

Nowadays vagina envy has been joined by pudenda power. One famous expression of it is Courbet's 1866 spread-eagle crotch shot, The Origin of the World, which scandalized not only because it displayed a flash of pink, but because it portrayed the female sex in its full hairy glory, rather than classicized and bare. Then there's real life: John Ruskin, who on his wedding night fled at the sight of his wife's pubic hair. This was before photography (and Courbet's painting), and the only female nudes he'd seen had been in art, and carefully tonsured. He thought his wife was grossly deformed, a freak.

Today, Ruskin might have been much more at ease, and Courbet's canvas might be viewed as unkempt. After all, we live in the age of Xtreme grooming, and it's been pioneered by women. Or I think it has. As a straight male art critic, I may not be qualified to say much on the subject, but it's become all but unavoidable. From private parts on figures in the work of Tracey Emin, Su-en Wong, Sarah Lucas and Marlene McCarty to those in the photographs and self-portraits of Patti Chang, Malerie Marder, Katy Grannan, Kembra Pfahler and Vanessa Beecroft, hairless pudenda are popping up in art galleries all over town.

The shaved, waxed, trimmed and otherwise depilated female pubis that has become a cultural norm might be called a Pandora's box of conflicting fears and desires. On the one hand, there's the fear of hair or chaetophobia. Hair is a sign of maturity and strength, which far too many men find scary in women. Removing pubic hair may be a wish to infantilize women - to make them look more like little girls. Which, if taken further, comes uncomfortably close to pedophilia.

For their part, women may internalize a distaste for hair and develop a love of bareness. Some would say this is self-exploitation. But it seems to me - and I'm sure I'm not alone - that women are turning something that objectifies them into a tool of empowerment. This is consistent with lowered waistlines and bared midriffs, which may be surrogates and pointers for the pudenda below. A woman I know describes the bared-belly look as "a way of showing more skin without revealing more breast or being tacky." Either way, visibility is power. The male anatomy has already taught us as much.

But in fact what we're learning is ancient wisdom. Women's vulvae have been represented both accurately and abstractly in Eastern art for centuries, especially Indian art. Think of the carved stone yonis or the illuminated manuscripts depicting couples in flagrante delicto. There may be more images like this in Western art than we know about, but recent exposures have made me see Georgia O'Keeffe's work, for example, in a more explicit light. I always thought of O'Keeffe's undulating landscapes as genital-like, but thinking of them as hairless anatomy is really tantalizing.

Kembra Pfahler, the former lead singer of the notorious cult performance group the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, explained her shaved privates by saying, "I do it because it looks good. Which," she added, "is my basic motivation for everything."

On the night of her opening, a few weeks back, as a crowd pressed close to a makeshift stage at American Fine Art at PHAG, that motivation was on vivid display. Pfahler and the seven members of her band arrived at the gallery wearing only black wigs, body paint and boots, flaunting their bare yonis like crazy.

Striding to the stage, they performed the circus-meets-de Sade "Wall of Vagina," which culminated in all but one of the group lying facedown, in a stack, butts toward the audience, legs spread. The remaining member squirted white liquid from a turkey baster into this seven-layered crack, from the top down. It was an outrageous money shot à la Julia Child - one that evoked the Vienna actionists, Annie Sprinkle, Jack Smith, Leigh Bowery and Carolee Schneemann. The group then stood up, walked out and disappeared naked down 22nd Street.

Things are a bit drier at Deitch Projects (18 Wooster Street), where Vanessa Beecroft is once more proffering an irksomely shallow yet strangely illuminating mirror, reflecting her narcissism, our voyeurism and the world's fixation on the female form. This time she's doing it with enormous, history-painting-sized color photographs of her signature naked-lady-as-mannequin performances.

The latest images show groups of more than a dozen models, all white in one performance, and all black in the other. With a noticeable difference: The white models are completely nude and waxed, while the black models wear strip-like bikinis. Interestingly, they all wear full-body makeup and high heels, as if an unaccessorized woman is still off-limits.

Beecroft's regimented models, and her predilection for beautiful, blond Aryans, have always made us think beyond the nude, to type; now she introduces race. But with the black women clad, the suggestion is that we're not ready to handle this particular truth - which is that the power of the shaved pudenda increases in direct proportion to the "otherness" of the woman in question. Or does it? After all, the more you see of the female anatomy, the less "difference," "otherness," or "mystery" you can project on it. When difference is accented, it is sometimes reduced.

When it comes to nudity, women have always been in the artistic vanguard, whether they liked it or not. The female body has been presented much more naked, much more often than the male body. It's anyone's guess what could happen next. But if men follow in these footsteps it could lead to our particular last frontier: the visible hard-on.'

NB Jerry Saltz is art critic for the Village Voice, where this review first appeared.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Baker's Dozen Of Notes From SS's Notes On Camp

Fig. 1. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres - Roger délivrant Angélique, 1819

1. '[The] essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.'

2. 'To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylisation.

To emphasise style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticised - or at least apolitical.'

3. 'As a taste in persons … a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms … corny flamboyant femaleness … exaggerated he-man-ness.'

4. 'Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman”. To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre.

Camp is the triumph of the epicene style. (The convertibility of “man” and “woman”, “person” and “thing”.) But all style, that is, artifice, is, ultimately, epicene. Life is not stylish. Neither is nature.'

6. 'Thus, the Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which the same things can be taken. But this is not the familiar split-level construction of a literal meaning, on the one hand, and a symbolic meaning, on the other. It is the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.

To camp is a mode of seduction - one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation: gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is “camp”, a duplicity is involved. Behind the “straight” public access in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.'

7. 'The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.'

8. 'Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much”.'

9. 'What Camp taste responds to is “instant character” … and, conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character. Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence - a person being one, very intense thing. This attitude toward character is a key element of the theatricalisation of experience embodied in the Camp sensibility … Wherever there is development of character, Camp is reduced.'

10. 'Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgement. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different - a supplementary - set of standards.'

11. 'Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content”, “aesthetics” over “morality”, of irony over tragedy.'

12. 'The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious”. One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.

One is drawn to Camp when one realises that “sincerity” is not enough. Sincerity can be philistinism, intellectual narrowness.

The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness - irony, satire - seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.

Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.'

13. 'Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation - not judgement. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism.) Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failure.

Camp is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character” … Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “camp”, they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.'

Susan Sontag (from Notes on Camp)

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Art Of Leaving The Substance For The Shadow*

Fig. 1. Paola Pivi - I Wish I Am Fish, 2009

'There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.'

John Ruskin

* 'Leave the substance for the shadow. Leave your easy life, leave what you are given for the future. Set off on the roads.'

Andre Breton

Your Ears Will Orgasm #55: W. A. Mozart - Adagio in C major (for Glass Harmonica) (MixPod Player)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Sunday Six: Serene Veils Of Pallid, Chalky Matter

Fig. 1. Giorgio Morandi - Still Life, 1941

Fig. 2. Giorgio Morandi - Still Life, 1951

Fig. 3. Giorgio Morandi - Still Life, 1956

Fig. 4. Giorgio Morandi - Still Life, 1961

Fig. 5. Giorgio Morandi - Still Life, 1963

Fig. 6. Giorgio Morandi - Still Life, 1964

'A half dozen pictures would just about be enough for the life of an artist, for my life.'

Giorgio Morandi

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Impossibility Of Nature In The Mind Of Anyone*

Fig. 1. Eduardo Sourrouille - Self-Portrait With An Impetuous Friend, 2008

'The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. That puts one in accord with nature, in her manner of operation.'

John Cage

* The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living (Damien Hirst)

Friday, April 10, 2009

The World Is A Mirror Of Everything We've Ever Been

Fig. 1. Julie Heffernan - Self-Portrait as Big World, 2008

'As children, we have all suspected it: perhaps we are all, moving strangely beneath the sky, victims of a trap, a joke whose secret we will one day know. This reaction is certainly infantile and we turn away from it, living in a world imposed on us as though it were "perfectly natural", quite different from the one that used to exasperate us. As children, we did not know if we were going to laugh or cry but, as adults, we "possess" this world, we make endless use of it, it is made of intelligible and utilisable objects. It is made of earth, stone, wood, plants, animals. We work the earth, we build houses, we eat bread and wine. We have forgotten, out of habit, our childish apprehensions. In a word, we have ceased to mistrust ourselves.

Only a few of us, amid the great fabrications of society, hang on to our really childish reactions, still wonder naively what we are doing on the earth and what sort of joke is being played on us. We want to decipher skies and paintings, go behind these starry backgrounds or these painted canvases and, like kids trying to find a gap in a fence, try to look through the cracks in the world.'

Georges Bataille (from The Cruel Practice of Art)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Michel Asks: What Are These Things Called Books?

Fig. 1. Anselm Kiefer - The Secret Life of Plants, 2002

'What, in short, is the strange unit designated by the term, work? What is necessary to its composition, if a work is not something written by a person called an "author"? ... If an individual is not an author, what are we to make of those things he has written or said, left among his papers or communicated to others? Is this not properly a work? What, for instance, were Sade's papers before he was consecrated as an author? Little more, perhaps, than roles of paper on which he endlessly unravelled his fantasies while in prison.

Assuming we are dealing with an author, is everything he wrote and said, everything he left behind, to be included in his work? ... If we wish to publish the complete works of Nietzsche, for example, where do we draw the line? Certainly everything must be published, but can we agree on what "everything" means? We will, of course, include everything that Nietzsche himself published, along with the drafts of his works, his plans for aphorisms, his marginal notations and corrections. But what if, in a notebook filled with aphorisms, we find a reference, a reminder of an appointment, an address, or a laundry bill, should this be included in his works? Why not? ... Such questions only begin to suggest the range of our difficulties, and, if some have found it convenient to bypass the individuality of the writer or his status as an author to concentrate on a work, they have failed to appreciate the equally problematic nature of the word "work" and the unity it designates.'

Michel Foucault (from What is an Author?)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Further Conjugations In The Vast Grammar Of Being*

Fig. 1. André Kertész - Underwater Swimmer, 1917

'What does learning consist in? Here is a traditional view: learning is a matter of memorising something that somebody else knows. It sounds simplistic, if we put it that way. But who among us has not attended high school and college and has not been subjected to this view of learning? A teacher, a professor, stands before the class, chalk or transparencies in hand. There are things you need to learn, items you need to know. Before the class period is over, these things will be transferred from the teacher's lecture notes, the professor's transparencies, to your notebook. From there, these things will be transferred to your brain. When those transfers are successful, you will be said to have learned what the teacher, the professor, has taught you.

It is a meager model of learning. It is also the most common one. It is a model that operates on some surface assumptions and a slightly deeper one. Its surface assumptions are, first, that the teacher knows what there is to know about a subject and you do not. Second, there is the assumption that the way that you learn what the teacher knows is to listen to the teacher and commit to memory what he or she has to say. Last, on the teacher's side, there is the assumption that by talking or using other media to substitute for talking, the teacher can impart to the student what needs to be known.

The slightly deeper assumption has to do with the dogmatic image of thought. It is the assumption that what is to be learned comes in discrete packets of identities. There are particular somethings that need to be known. These somethings may be related to one another or they may not. In either case, they are independent enough from one another to be isolated each to a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter. These somethings are then represented by the sentences spoken by the teacher or professor, and then arrive at your ear or on your paper. If the learning us successful, there will have been no alteration, no damage, of any of these somethings along the way. Their identities will retain their integrity. And if you do your job you will be able to repeat or manipulate these identities when test time comes around.

There is another view of learning that does not start with the assumption that what is to be learned has the character of an identity or group of identities. It starts instead from the assumption that what there is to be learned has the character of difference rather than identity. If what is to be learned does not have the character of identity, then the learning itself is not a project of transferring identities from the knower to the one who seeks to know. It is instead a project of experimentation.

Swimmers do not learn facts about the water and about their bodies and then apply them to the case in hand. The water and their bodies are swarms of differences. In order to navigate their bodies through the water they will need to acquire a skill: to "conjugate" their bodies with the water in such a way as to stay on its surface. This skill involves no memorisation. It involves an immersion, a finding one's way through things, coming through one's body to understand what one is capable of in the water. There is no one way to do this, and different ways may lead to different kinds of success. There are also failures; water may be composed of differences, but not every path through those differences will keep one afloat.

Swimmers apprentice themselves to the water. They get a feel for the water, for how it moves and what possibilities it offers them. They get a feel for their bodies in the water. And they conjugate one against the other. The couplet body/water is a problematic field ... Particular ways of swimming are solutions within that problematic field. They do not solve the problem of swimming. For there is no single problem of swimming. There is instead a problematic field of body/water, of which particular ways of swimming are solutions. They are experiments in conjugation of this problematic field, much of which takes place below the level of conscious thought, beneath the identities representation offers us: "'learning' always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing a profound complicity between nature and mind." [Deleuze, Difference and Repetition]

What does learning how to think consist in? Unlike learning how to swim, it first requires the abandonment of bad habits. These habits are the ones instilled in all of us by the dogmatic image of thought and its representational view of language and the world. We must discover this image and this view; we must see what roles they play in preventing us from really thinking.

But that is not all. That is only the negative task, the clearing of the ground. Alongside this abandonment we must also experiment in ways of thinking. We must conjugate our thought and our world, our thought and our language.

There are those who have gone before us, who have swum in this water before: Spinoza, Bergson, Nietzsche among them. They may help ease us into the water, teach us some of the strokes, so we don't drown before we get started. We can apprentice ourselves to them. Sooner or later, however, we must push off from the shore and conjugate things for ourselves ... [We] must do it for ourselves, each of us ...

There are two mistakes we might make in considering the prospect of learning to think. The first mistake would be to assume that thinking, unlike swimming, is a purely conscious activity, that thinking is a manipulation of thought. That mistake is our inheritance from the dogmatic image of thought. We feel our way into thinking in much the same way as we feel our way into swimming. Thinking is at least as unconscious as it is conscious, and it is no less an experiment ... The second mistake would be to assume that each of us must face this task alone. In fact, we can face it in groups, conjugating ourselves with one another as well as with the world. Thinking does not need to be a solitary activity, and it surely does not take place in a world which we do not share with others ... [We might] consider our place among others in the world, to think about it, or with it, or in it."

Todd May (from Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction)

* 'To learn is to enter into the universal of the relations which constitute the Idea, and into their corresponding singularities. The idea of the sea, for example, as Leibniz showed, is a system of liaisons or differential relations between particulars and singularities corresponding to the degree of variation among these relations - the totality of the system being incarnated in the real movement of the waves. To learn to swim is to conjugate the distinctive points of our bodies with the singular points of the objective Idea in order to form a problematic field.'

Gilles Deleuze (from Difference and Repetition)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I Ran Out Of Words, But Not Before I Ran Out Of You

Fig. 1. Richard Serra - Equal Parallel, 1986

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit

As old medallions to the thumb

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown -

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind -

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

A poem should be equal to:
Not true

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea -

A poem should not mean
But be.

Archibald MacLeish

Monday, April 6, 2009

There's Always Light In Other People's Darkenesses

Fig. 1. Edgar Degas - Woman by a Fireplace, 1880-90

'There are two kinds of light - the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures.'

James Thurber

Your Ears Will Orgasm #54: Fever Ray - Mix (MixPod Player)

1. If I Had A Heart
2. When I Grow Up
3. Dry And Dusty
4. Seven
5. Triangle Walks
6. Concrete Walls
7. Now's The Only Time I Know
8. Keep The Streets Empty For Me