Archive

Guest Artists

road side picnic

From its origin in the late nineteenth century until the present, the postcard has been frowned upon as a form of correspondence that people take to who are “too lazy to write letters.” Critics have suggested that the persistent jocular contempt for a form that was intended mainly to amuse is responsible for the fact that cultural critics have neglected to take the postcard seriously—to study it as a form of propaganda, for example; and that has prevented philosophers, Jacques Derrida excepted, from engaging with the genre.

In its most traditional form, the postcard is a paper card with a view on the front and a space for a short message on the back. Why do we send postcards? Clearly, our intention is not to exchange intensely private experiences. A postcard is not supposed to be sent in an envelope. Do we perhaps send postcards to remind ourselves where we are from, to make sure that we do not lose ourselves completely in the escape of travel? Do we send them to assure the ones we left behind that they have not completely been forgotten? Do we send them to make sure that we ourselves will not be forgotten during our absence? Is the postcard in this sense a form of remembrance and of mindfulness?

Or is it our intention, rather, to let the ones who stayed at home participate in our escape, and share the idyll of our destination? Do we want to offer them, in this case, the possibility to forget? The postcard authorizes a place—but what kind of place? A place that doesn’t really exist: a non-place. The postcard’s message is not simply that “Kilroy was here.” Instead, it authorizes the image of a place. As a form of remembrance, it is thus also a form of forgetting—not just the forgetting of home, but also of the actually existing society of destination. (This is why we are shocked, for example, by the buzzing of the flies in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man: we do not see them, do not even image them, when we behold Alaska from the sky, through the windows of the plane that takes us there.) We know very well that the place of destination is not the utopia represented in the postcard. But in order for the postcard to work, we need to suspend that knowledge and forget. Each time we sign a postcard, we participate in this pretense.

On the basis of these quick reflections, one could conclude that the postcard is an intensely literary-political genre in which remembering and forgetting are intricately connected. As a form of utopia, it keeps open the slightest difference between things as they are and things as they might otherwise be. On the one hand, the linear, text-based alphabetic culture of its back confirms the idyll of the magic-based pictorial culture of its front, thus participating in the postcard’s pretense; on the other hand, the postcard also reveals a chasm of forgetfulness that is shutting its reality off against the world of theoretical knowledge and action. The postcard is thus a form of communication that invites us to imagine, while at the same time revealing a tear in its optic.

Image: Nick Goss, Roadside Picnic, 2010/2011, oil on canvas, 180cm x 300cm.

Advertisements

Stofwolk (Dust cloud)

“We all know” Aristotle’s famous definition of the human being as a political animal: “It is evident from these considerations, then, that a city-state is among the things that exist by nature, that a human being is by nature a political animal, and that anyone who is without a city-state, not by luck but by nature, is either a poor specimen or else superhuman. Like the one Homer condemns, he too is ‘clanless, lawless, and homeless’.” As a political animal, the human being is thus caught up between two kinds of life: the mere life of the poor specimen, and the more life of the superhuman. As political animals, we are caught up between bare life and sovereign power.

In Giorgio Agamben’s work, bare life and sovereignty form a couple; but the particular nature of their coupling has not yet been fully understood. The closest I’ve come to it, is in a book that explicitly distances itself from Agamben: it does not focus on sovereignty but on biopolitics; it does not focus on bare life but on more life, or “life as surplus.” The book—Melinda Cooper’s Life as Surplus—argues that there is a connection in the neoliberal era between biotechnology and capitalism: at the same time that neoliberalism does nothing to prevent life-destroying disasters such as the one caused by hurricane Katrina (more precisely, by the levees breaking as a result of the hurricane), it invests unprecedented sums in the life-sciences, funding scientists to speculate on life’s continued generation beyond disaster. It is a delirious form of capitalism that is thanatopolitical and biopolitical at the same time.

Cooper argues that neither Agamben nor Roberto Esposito, who addresses the coincision of thanatopolitics and biopolitics in Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy, have understood this particular nexus between the politics of life and new forms of speculative capitalization. This may be because of the relative absence of Karl Marx in their writings. By contrast, Marx takes up a central place in Cooper’s book, which lays bare—after Marx—the ways in which the production of bare life goes hand in hand with “the capitalist promise of more abundant life.” Interestingly, both these forms of life—bare life and more abundant life—could fall under the heading of “surplus life”: the supernumerary life of the poor specimen that’s not worth living, on the one hand; the life of the superhuman, on the other. Cooper’s book thus exposes a political heritage in the neoliberal era that goes back at least as far as Aristotle’s celebrated definition.

In response, she calls for “something like a creative sabotage of the future; a pragmatics of preemptive resistance capable of actualizing the future outside of the policeable boundaries of property right. And in the face of a politics that all too often adopts a posture of resignation in the face of the biospheric catastrophe, it is imperative that we do not give in to the sense of the inevitable.” One might wonder whether this creative sabotage, which aims to take care of life in a different way, is merely another biotechnic? And whether politics, then, is merely a question of disentangling biotechnology from capitalism in the neoliberal era?

References: Aristotle. Politics. Trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1998; Melinda Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neo-Liberal Era. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2008. Image: Willem Weismann, Stofwolk (Dust cloud), 60 x 60 cm, oil on canvas, 2010.

The patient finger

The theory of evolutionary aesthetics argues that in our partner choices, we are driven by evolutionary concerns. Our partner choices are determined by a concern, conscious or not, with the survival of our gene pool. This is supposed to hold true regardless of our sexual orientation. Whom we think is beautiful is biologically determined. For many, this is no doubt a theory that is difficult to accept. At the same time, we aren’t creationists either. During that dinner conversation, we will happily come to the aid of Charles Darwin–but without being willing to pursue evolutionary theory to the above end. Both creationists and scientists may be quick to hold this ambiguity against us. Suddenly, it appears necessary to decide. What side are we on? Are we with or against evolution?

As in many such situations, it is not entirely certain that we must choose. It may be that the answer is neither. “Of course,” when it comes to the creation of human life, we are with evolution, and not with the bible. But that shouldn’t mean that we follow the theory of evolutionary aesthetics. Indeed, since the creation of human life, culture has speeded up to such a degree that we might have spun outside of the realms of evolution altogether. As the members of Critical Art Ensemble state in a text titled Flesh Machine, “evolution is a theory, not a fact”—and they are hardly creationists. Evolution, as we know, moves forward like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history: with its back turned towards the future, it sees wreckage being piled upon wreckage as part of what Benjamin describes as “a single catastrophe.” It doesn’t know what it is doing. It just does—and out of all of this doing, certain gene pools survive. But it’s not as if we know what we are looking for when we choose our mates. From an evolutionary perspective, we might at best be making educated guesses.

Are will still within the era of evolution? If Critical Art Ensemble is correct in its diagnosis of the emergence of a flesh machine—a power machine that operates onto our biological lives directly–, does it still make sense, within this emergence, to speak of evolution? It may be that we can only hold on to this notion if we recognize that we have become its masters, that we have become our own gods, that we have entered into the era of “superhumanism,” as Peter Sloterdijk in a text from the late 1990s already put it. The risk, of course, is that we won’t have the courage to take on this responsibility, and that evolution will be run for us—by capital. To be sure, there is no way out of the flesh machine. But who is going to operate it?

References: Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies, and New Eugenic Consciousness. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1998; Peter Sloterdijk, “Rules for the Human Zoo: Response to the Letter on Humanism”. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2009), 12-28; Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. In: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968. 253-264. Image: Willem Weismann, The patient finger, 50 x 60 cm, oil on canvas, 2010.

TheBridge

“Plasticity” as Catherine Malabou defines it is the capacity not only to give and to receive form, but also to destroy it. In her book Les nouveaux blessés, Malabou explores plasticity’s destructive potential. Situating herself between Freud and neurology, she explores the ways in which certain traumata can negate a previously existing identity, so that an entirely different person comes into being. A subject survives, but it is no longer the same subject; its history—its childhood–has become irretrievable. As Malabou argues, psychoanalysis is unable to understand these subjects. Parkinson or Alzheimer patients are included among the subjects that she discusses in her book.

In Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark talks about Alzheimer patients as well. Through one of his colleagues, Clark comes across the puzzling case of Alzheimer patients who are able to live alone successfully even though “they really should not have been able to do so”: “On standard psychological tests they performed rather dismally.” What kept them together? Clark suggests that it was their home environments, which “were wonderfully calibrated to support and scaffold these biological brains. The homes were stuffed full of cognitive propos, tools, and aids.” This example comes to back up Clark’s earlier claim about “narrative selves,” which he characterizes as “biotechnological hybrids.” In the case of the Alzheimer patients, the scaffolding of all kinds of memory aids enabled the patients to keep their minds together.

But Clark then raises a fascinating question. What if we were to imagine, he asks, “a world in which normal human brains are somewhat Alzheimic”? Don’t we all keep our selves together through biotechnologies? Wouldn’t we all fall apart if, overnight, all of these biotechnologies would be taken away? From this perspective, the self is not some kind of solid core that defines us, but a “soft self”: “a rough-and-tumble, control-sharing coalition of processes—some neural, some bodily, some technological—and an ongoing drive to tell a story, to paint a picture in which ‘I’ am the central player.” The type of wounds that Malabou theorizes would destroy, however, even this soft sense of self.

What if we were to imagine a painting with no central player? A painting that would remove, not just the central player in the painting but also the painter her- or himself as the central player? A painting that would not frame, as paintings do, but simply see? A painting without a self, not even a soft self? A posthuman painting? Painting resists, in my opinion, this final leap–even if the frame is off, as in some of Edgar Degas’ ballet paintings, the trace of the paint on the canvas prevents the viewer from ever entirely leaving the self behind. (Only fully mechanized representation can achieve this.)

References: Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Image: Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen, The Bridge, 2009, oil on canvas, 105x184cm.

Tower1

In his book Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark recalls an experiment designed by V.S. Ramachandran, professor and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego. Here is Clark’s description of the experiment: “Sitting at your desk, place your left hand underneath the desktop. Get a volunteer to tap the desktop with her right hand while using the left to (in synchrony) tap your hidden hand.” “[M]any subjects will feel as if the ‘being tapped sensation’ is located on the desk surface—as if the desktop were a real, sensitive part of their body.” “Now have the volunteer hit the desktop with a hammer. Your galvanic skin response [GSR] jumps as if your own hand had been threatened!” When Clark returns to GSR later on in his book, he includes Ramachandran’s remark that “perhaps it’s not all that silly to ask whether you identify with your car. Just punch it to see whether your GSR changes.”

There is a powerful idea here that Clark already evoked in the introduction to his book, when he describes his experience of the loss of his laptop as “a minor stroke.” With the loss of the technological object, it appears a part of himself has gone lost, to the extent that he is incapable of functioning normally. Even though we might not have a single piece of technology within our body, the fact that we operate as mind-body-technological scaffolding assemblages turns us into cyborgs. It is these typically human, supportive environments that justify Clark’s claim that we are natural-born cyborgs.

What happens when we consider this type of thought next to D.W. Winnicott’s theory of the transitional object? A transitional object is an object that, although it is not a part of the infant’s body, is not fully recognized as belonging to external reality. To grow up means to let go of such objects, and to recognize the border between the body and what lies outside of it. But isn’t the car in the example from Ramachandran that Clark cites—do you identify with your car? Does your GSR change when you punch your car?—a kind of transitional object? And aren’t our lives in the increasingly technological world characterized by the breakdown of the separation between the body and what lies outside of it—in other words, by the creation of transitional objects? If losing our laptop can be compared to suffering a minor stroke, as Clark suggests, this means that the laptop has become a part of our body… What does this mean for Winnicott’s theory today?

Does to grow up still mean to let go of transitional objects? Or, if to live in today’s technological world means to live with more and more transitional objects, might it perhaps mean to learn to engage with such objects in a different way?

References: Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Image: Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen, Tower, 2007, oil on canvas, 94x155cm.

Aquifer,2009

In an interview with Gabriel Rockhill that was published in The Politics of Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière says: “I always try to think in terms of horizontal distributions, combinations between systems of possibilities, not in terms of surface and substratum. Where one searches for the hidden beneath the apparent, a position of mastery is established. I have tried to conceive of a topography that does not presuppose this position of mastery.” Rancière’s use of the term mastery reveals that this methodological statement is also a political one; and, given the title of the book, one gathers that the politics expressed here is somehow also the politics of aesthetics. How so?

To establish this connection between politics and aesthetics would mean to consider the aesthetic as a realm in which no position of mastery is established, a realm in which it’s not about surface/substratum, in which nothing is hiding beneath the apparent. In the aesthetic, presentation has the final word; it’s not about re-presentation. Perhaps because of the political systems in which we live, we tend to think of politics as the realm of re-presentation. But it may be that such a move is not really political, or that it is political in the wrong way. A politics of re-presentation always establishes a logic of mastery: the people depend on whoever re-presents them; a person is only recognized as what he or she re-presents. This is, one could argue, the logic of identity: you are recognized as a political subject because of something else you re-present (contrary to what the term suggests, we never coincide with our “identity”).

But what if we were to rethink politics as presentation, in other words: as aesthetics? As Giorgio Agamben argues in his work on language and linguistics, this would amount to something like appreciating language as such—not as something that always refers to something else (for that would be the logic of re-presentation). To rethink politics as presentation would mean to recognize someone as a political subject by virtue of their mere being. They wouldn’t need to be African-American, or female, or communist, or even human to qualify. “Just being” would be enough to belong. Such is, one could argue, the logic of aesthetics. As long as politics operates within the logic of re-presentation, it has a lot to learn from it.

The insight also applies to the practice of reading. We tend to read re-presentationally, by looking for the hidden beneath the apparent. But the challenge might be to read presentationally, by focusing on the aesthetic operation of the text. Although the re-presentational mode may work with certain types of texts (newspaper articles, for example), it fails spectacularly with literature, which—like all works of art—operates in the presentational mode. To enter the literary text is like entering an art gallery, in which everything that needs to be said is included in the artwork’s presentation.

References: Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004). Image: Andrew Palmer, Aquifer, 2009, Varnish oil and acrylic gesso on linen, 46 x 39 cm.

Image 1. Speaking about the 'Aerial Ocean.' History of Climate Change

In a conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak about Hannah Arendt’s work on rights, Judith Butler mentions the street demonstrations by illegal residents in various Californian cities in the Spring of 2006. She points out that during these demonstrations, “the US national anthem was sung in Spanish as was the Mexican anthem.” “The emergence of ‘nuestro hymno’,” she observes, “introduced the interesting problem of the plurality of the nation, of the ‘we’ and the ‘our’: to whom does the anthem belong?” For Butler, “it’s not just that many people sang together … but also that singing is a plural act, an articulation of plurality. If, as Bush claimed at the time, the national anthem can only be sung in English, then the nation is clearly restricted to a linguistic majority, and language becomes one way of asserting criterial control over who belongs and who does not.” The illegal residents singing the US national anthem in Spanish thus become an example of what Jacques Rancière calls a political subject, challenging the overall distribution of the sensible that he calls the police. It is the aesthetic act of their singing that for Butler comes to mark a politics.

Butler’s discussion of the illegal residents singing the US national anthem in Spanish arguably originates in her earlier discussion of Antigone. The closing paragraph of Butler’s book on Antigone reads like a summary of Rancière’s definition of a political subject: “Who then is Antigone within such a scene, and what are we to make of her words, words that become dramatic events, performative acts? She is not of the human but speaks in its language. Prohibited from action, she nevertheless acts, and her act is hardly a simple assimilation to an existing norm. And in acting, as one who has no right to act, she upsets the vocabulary of kinship that is a precondition for the human, implicitly raising the question for us of what those preconditions really must be. She speaks within the language of entitlement from which she is excluded, particularly in the language of the claim with which no final identification is possible. If she is human, then the human has entered into catachresis: we no longer know its proper usage. And to the extent that she occupies the language that can never belong to her, she functions as a chiasm within the vocabulary of political norms” (emphases mine).

In this passage, Antigone becomes Rancière’s political subject: a woman who, from the position of being a woman, challenges the distribution of the sensible and “puts two worlds in one and the same world” (note the number of rhetorical constructions that mark this politics of dissensus: “not … but”; “prohibited … nevertheless”; “acting, as one who has not right to act”; “within … excluded”; “occupies … never belong”). Butler tropes such a politics as a politics of “catachresis” and of the “chiasm,” thus making it clear that the particular politics she is interested in is a politics of aesthetics. The element that is added to this in the discussion about the Spring 2006 demonstrations is “plurality.” The speech act has become a performative act has become an aesthetic act.

Flyer announcing the performance:

History of Climate Change

References: Butler, Judith and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Who Sings the Nation-State? Language, Politics, Belonging. London: Seagull, 2007; Butler, Judith. Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. Image: Amy Howden-Chapman, talking to the “Aerial Ocean.” Elysian Park Museum of Art’s History of Climate Change, A Guided Tour of the Collection, performance, 2010.