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Monthly Archives: April 2010

Non-Christian 1

There is a passage in his autobiography titled Hand to Mouth in which Paul Auster recalls an absurd scene from the time when he was working for Ex Libris, a rare book concern in New York specialized in publications connected with twentieth-century art. The scene involves the cover that Marcel Duchamp designed for the catalogue of the 1947 Surrealist exhibition in Paris: “the one with the rubber breast on the cover, the celebrated bare falsie that came with the admonition ‘Prière de Toucher’ (‘Please Touch’)”. When Auster is asked to write a short entry about this book, he is struck by the ironies of the situation: “When you sit down to write about the catalogue that Marcel Duchamp designed for the 1947 Surrealist exhibition in Paris … and you find that catalogue protected by several layers of bubble wrap, which in turn have been swathed in thick brown paper, which in turn has been slipped into a plastic bag, you can’t help but pause for a moment and wonder if you aren’t wasting your time. Prière de toucher. Duchamp’s imperative is an obvious play on the signs you see posted all over France: Prière de ne pas toucher (Do Not Touch). He turns the warning on its head and asks us to fondle the thing he has made. And what better thing than this spongy, perfectly formed breast? Don’t venerate it, he says, don’t take it seriously, don’t worship this frivolous activity we call art. Twenty-seven years later, the warning is turned upside down again. The naked breast has been covered. The thing to be touched has been made untouchable. The joke has been turned into a deadly serious transaction, and once again money has the last word”.

Auster’s criticism is given some theoretical depth in Giorgio Agamben’s essay “In Praise of Profanation”, in which the museum is theorized as a space in which what used to belong to the common use of men becomes the property of the gods. In this sense, the museum “designates the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing”. Echoing Auster’s closing remark about “money”, Agamben notes that “[t]hus, in the Museum, the analogy between capitalism and religion becomes clear”. In response to this development, Agamben praises the practice of profanation: “to return to the free use of men”. As an example, he cites “the cat who plays with a ball of yarn as if it were a mouse”. What Agamben admires here is that this cat “knowingly uses the characteristic behaviors of predatory activity … in vain. These behaviors are not effaced, but, thanks to the substitution of the yarn for the mouse … deactivated and thus opened up to a new, possible use”. Hunting thus turns into “a praxis that, while firmly maintaining its nature as a means, is emancipated from its relationship to an end: it has joyously forgotten its goal and can now show itself as such, as a means without an end”.

References: Auster, Paul. Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure. London: Faber and Faber, 1998; Agamben, Giorgio. Profanations. Trans. Jeff Fort. New York: Zone Books, 2007. Image: Alex Robbins, A Dictionary of Non-Christian Religions, 2010, Carved Black Walnut, Paint, Silkscreen 24 x 16 x 3 cm.

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Civilization

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew proves that realism is the only mode in which the extraordinary can be conveyed. Reality is the only true site of the extraordinary’s existence. This means, paradoxically, that realism is our only access to the miraculous; any other way of achieving this amounts to what Karl Marx has called the “nursery tale” of theology. Take, for example, the opening scenes of Pasolini’s film: they represent the opening scenes of Matthew’s gospel, i.e. the revelation that Mary is pregnant from the Lord. The film begins with an exchange of gazes: Mary is looking at Joseph, and Joseph at Mary; Mary is looking down—clearly something is not the way it should be. The camera moves back, and the viewer sees that Mary is pregnant. When Joseph realizes what Mary’s gaze is telling him, he walks away from her, back into town, where he is visited by an angel who explains the situation (Mary is pregnant from the Lord!). There are no special effects: the angel is just a human being whose long hair is waving in the wind. Joseph returns to Mary’s house, and once again no words are exchanged. There are only gazes: Mary smiles, and so does Joseph. There is a barely perceptible nod on his part indicating that he has accepted the situation, that he accepts the child as the Lord’s. All of these scenes are represented realistically, without any attempt to imitate the miraculous; and yet, it is this extreme realism that conveys a sense of the extraordinary, providing access to the true miracle that is conveyed here.

This mode of representation entirely reverses one’s understanding of the miracle. As has been noted in several recent discussions of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption (see for example Eric Santner’s Psychotheology of Everyday Life), a miracle is usually understood to be what suspends the order of the everyday. Think, for example, of Carl Schmitt’s understanding of the miracle as an exceptional situation or state. It is an event that breaks with the ordinary. Rosenzweig, however, sought to break with that understanding, and instead theorized the miracle as the miracle of the everyday; he was interested in the extraordinariness of the ordinary. As Bonnie Honig puts it in her book Emergency Politics, for Rosenzweig “[t]he miracle is not … about the contravention of everyday patterns of existence or laws of nature. It is a sign of divine providence that is experienced as such and that opens us up, both to providence and to the everyday. It allows or solicits us to experience the everyday as miracle, the ordinary as calling for acknowledgment, or receptivity or gratitude; it calls us to experience the apparently steadfast as contingent and as could have been otherwise. And it calls for us to experience the contingent as steadfast, as fated, willed, foreseen or, at least (in more secular terms) significant. It calls for what we now call mindfulness”. Such a position immanentizes the transcendental tie of religion, and reorients humanity’s investment in the above and beyond towards the everyday reality of the neighborhood.

References: Pasolini, Pier Paolo. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Titanus Distribuzione, 1964); Honig, Bonnie. Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. Image: Dan Davis, What We Call Civilization, oil on canvas, 80 cm x 90 cm, 2010.

Kym Ward 2010 Die Scheiß Ideologie deiner Nation

I. There is a scene in Jason Reitman’s recent film Up In the Air in which Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) try to console one of the employees they have been hired to fire (Bob, played by J.K. Simmons) by telling him that now he can finally take up that career in French cooking he abandoned years ago. At first sight, the suggestion is outrageous given that the fired employee’s first and foremost concern will be how to get any food on the table at all. But the scene also contains a degree of truth in that it shows one’s energies to be laid bare in a situation of crisis. From this perspective, Up In the Air could be read as a modern-day retelling of the Prometheus myth: “to be fired” would then come to mean “to have the fire returned to you”, to be “given back” the fire that Zeus, angered by Prometheus who cheated him, took away from humanity.

Reitman’s film adds a particularly interesting twist to this ancient tale in that it associates the return of the fire with a humanity without work. In Up In the Air, it is in a state of non-work that humanity’s energies are laid bare. It should be noted, however, that the consolation that Bingham and Keener offer does not exactly lie in non-work; rather, it is the prospect of doing another kind of work that the employee is supposed to find appealing. The point that the film is making thus appears to be that, liberated from the body- and mind-numbing office jobs in which they are caught up, human beings are restored to a hyper-energized state of working-otherwise that is comparable, perhaps, to the one evoked by Karl Marx in The German Ideology, when he imagines a humanity that could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner … without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic”. One could argue that human beings are thus restored to a “technical capacity”—the uncanny capacity to bring something from non-being into being–that overcomes the alienation of labor.

sketch for short film

II. It might be, however, that today, the association between humanity and work that Marx maintains (the human being is still essentially a working being, for Marx) needs to be questioned further in response to the crises of all kinds in which human beings are caught up. If Reitman’s film arguably reveals the simple point that “there is energy in crisis”, the situation today appears to be that “energy itself is in crisis”: both the amounts of energy as well as the kinds of energy that humanity consumes are up for reevaluation. In response to this situation, analysts have often insisted on the exploration of alternative energies (the “green energies” argument) and on the reduction of energy uses (the “ecological footprint” argument). But is unclear what the ecological component of both these arguments really is: the “ecological footprint” argument for example might ultimately simply be convenient for modern, bio-political governments invested in securing the borders and reducing the global citizen’s mobility (as a recent manifesto from the revolutionary left has suggested).

Because of these suspicions, some have begun to challenge the notion of energy itself, tracing it back to Aristotle’s distinction between “energeia” and “dunamis”. In this perspective, the response to the contemporary crisis of energy might not so much be to use less energy or to use alternative energies, but to rethink the notion of energy itself as a radical potentiality that does not necessarily flip over into the actuality of its consumption. Instead, energy would be conceived as the persistence of a potentiality not-to, as a perpetual state of energized potential that is not necessarily immediately consumed. It might ultimately be from such a thought of energy as a potentiality not-to—from this capacity to separate out from what one is, does, or think “the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think”, as Michel Foucault puts it in his essay “What is Enlightenment?”—that our energies will come.

As will be clear, this is not the same as the “green energies” argument. Whereas the green energies argument immediately perceives of the world as a “standing-in-reserve” (to use Martin Heidegger’s language) of energy for use, in other words: in terms of its actualization or consumption, the philosophical argument about potentiality not-to would reconsider the world as being one step removed from this. The philosophical argument has to do, to put it in slightly dramatic terms, with a “saving of the world” from its increasing actualization in consumption. For if there is no longer a world in which everything is possible, if there is only a world of actualized consumption, then energy will have truly disappeared: communicability will have been sacrificed to communication, and questions about the quantity and the quality of our energy uses will have become meaningless. As Up In the Air reminds us, our energies come from our states of crisis, emergency, and exception—from a world of possibilities. Rather than resist this world, it might be necessary to embrace it as the spacing in which humanity’s original technical capacities are exposed.

References: Jason Reitman, Up In the Air (Paramount, 2009); Robert Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton, 1978; Michel Foucault. The Politics of Truth. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. Trans. Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007; Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper, 1977. Images: Kym Ward, Die Scheiß Ideologie deiner Nation, Performance, 2010 (Clarke Gallery, Berlin); Photograph by Elly Clarke; Linda Franke and Kym Ward, Sketch For a Short Film, 2010.

megahelmet

In Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets, there is a scene in which Robert De Niro walks into a mafia bar in Little Italy in boxer shorts, with a girl on each arm. There is some joking at the coat check, where he puts on his trousers, and then Scorcese shifts into slow-motion mode and has De Niro float towards the end of the bar where Harvey Keitel is waiting. One imagines that it is this kind of scene—a scene that projects the illusion of a De Niro who is totally “in it” (as it is said) and who becomes one with his environment, leaving all conscious thought behind in order to “just be”–that attracts the anonymous narrator of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. When he goes to see Scorcese’s film at the Ritzy in Brixton, he is fascinated by De Niro’s capacity to “just be”. Paradoxically, it is the actor De Niro who for McCarthy’s narrator becomes a figure of an authenticity that remains out of his reach.

Although the lack of authenticity might go even further back, the narrator blames his feeling second-hand on an accident in which he was involved—bits and pieces of technology falling from the sky—and about which he is not allowed to speak (otherwise he will lose the financial compensation he has received for it). Not that he could speak about it if he wanted to: it appears to have escaped his memory altogether. After the accident, he had to relearn how to speak and walk. For this purpose, doctors broke down his movements into what sounds like an Eadweard Muybridge series of photographs; it’s by breaking down his movements into their smallest components—mov-emes, as structuralists might say—and understanding how these components relate to each other, that the narrator relearns how to walk. But he remains haunted by the feeling that his walk is inauthentic, that each and everyone one of his “natural” movements is now so shot through with thought that it is no longer his.

One night, however, the narrator has what appears to be an experience of authenticity when he observes a crack in the bathroom wall of a friend’s apartment. He decides to use the money he has received in compensation for his accident to rebuild not only the bathroom that this crack reminds him of, but also the building in which it is located, and the part of the world around this building. It’s a project that generates a lot of stuff, but this should not confuse us: what we are witnessing is ultimately the execution of an idea, a philosophical form that can never be real. It is ultimately only in the collapse of this artificial, metaphysical construction that an experience of the real will be conveyed. The narrator’s attempt to experience life will paradoxically only come about in death, when life erupts onto the scene of his constructions in the only way that it can ever become part of the work of art: as what it is not, as death. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a living work of art. Life can only exist in a negative relation to art.

References: Scorcese, Martin. Mean Streets (Taplin-Perry-Scorcese Productions, 1973); McCarthy, Tom. Remainder. New York: Vintage, 2005. Image: Monica Rodriguez, MegaHelmet, 2009.