Performing Ecology, Pt. 2 (Narcissist Modernity)

March 26, 2013 · Print This Article


In my previous post, I have presented a series of scenes which highlight the enmeshment of humans and nonhumans both on theatrical stages and in the world at large. I have also suggested that such interconnectedness calls into question the pursuit of autonomy and emancipation as it was set up by discourses on modernity and modernism. Today, I will start to expand on that topic by trying to show, in a very concise way, how the modern pursuit of autonomy and emancipation from “Nature” ended up surrounding humans with mirror-images of themselves, eventually making narcissism a condition for modernity.

According to Kant, the Age of Enlightenment was the moment in history when humankind realised that autonomy from nature and free use of reason were its ultimate destiny. However, because thought had limits, Enlightenment was not only a programme aimed at the progressive liberation of reason but also, because of that, a project of critique, of recognising the barriers which thought mustn’t cross if it is to produce valid knowledge. As a result, Kant eventually claimed that, because things in themselves are outside the mind and are only able to be judged once they have been converted into thoughts, thought is only ever able to think thought and never the things outside thought to which thought itself refers.

Following that, it is possible to identify the formation of a double separation of humans from “Nature” in Kant’s project for Enlightenment: not only are humans separated from “Nature” once through the development of their exclusive mental faculties, but those mental faculties themselves, due to the conditions that must be in place for their correct operability, end up producing a second separation, this time a separation of through from world in itself.

It is this twice-enforced divide between human and world that can still be seen today as the epistemological paradigm grounding a great amount of work falling under the academic banner of ‘critical thought’ in the Arts and Humanities, a dominant methodology of scholarly work perhaps better represented by Michel Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge. However, a crucial difference separates Kant from Foucault: whereas the former wanted to map the absolute limits of thought, the latter aimed to demonstrate how knowledge is always indissociable from power in order to then consider the possibility of future epistemological transgressions.

From Feminism to Queer Theory, from Deconstruction to Postcolonial Theory, the critical ethos of the Humanities, much indebted to Foucault’s work, has taken as its job to reflect upon the limits of human knowledge in order to understand how what is taken for granted is in fact produced at the level of discourse through complex articulations of power and knowledge. By focusing on the performative nature of knowledge—how knowledge does rather than is—the critical project seeks to separate the arbitrary from the necessary in order to reveal how realities previously assumed to be universal are instead historically contingent. However, by falling victim to an uncontrollable suspicion of knowledge, contemporary critique ends up betraying itself as the only certainty it allows, the only truth claim it leaves unturned, is the one upon which critique itself depends for its own survival, i.e. the one that posits the historical contingency and performative nature of all knowledge.

The problem is that whereas the critical enterprise had, following the dawn of Modernity, been rightly concerned with calling into question beliefs such as those advanced by various religious doctrines and replacing them with scientifically validated facts, at the start of the 21st century and there being no beliefs left to disprove, criticality has now started targeting objective facts themselves, often by negating their existence or by turning them into a mere product of their dialectical counterpart, the observing human subject and its usage of language. Today, after the so-called ‘objective reality’ was found to always be the result of power-knowledge formations, human discourse has become the true cause of the world itself.

The unfortunate outcome of that phenomenon is clear: while scholars spend their time trying to expose the true conditions of (human) knowledge, the arbitrary nature of everything we know, very real phenomena are having rather real consequences: global warming is happening, the Arctic ice cap is melting, natural resources are diminishing, sea levels are rising, and old and new pandemics are still killing millions (unless you can pay to survive). In short, widespread critique has contributed for society’s inability to act upon issues as pressing as persisting social inequalities or climate change. Furthermore, whereas, in Foucault’s case, for instance, it was a tool of progressive left wing politics, today it has been taken up by right wing conservatives who use it to deny the reality of ongoing ecological disaster and even by fascists like those who insist Auschwitz never happened. In the 21st century, the only thing humanity seems to be able to do is to argue while hoping that one day the cows will eventually come home by themselves.

What we have ended up with is a species obsessed with itself, unable to grasp anything other than its own reality. In good ‘ol Kantian fashion, thought is the only certainty; everything outside of it is just a muddy grey area. And so we are left able to look at nothing other than ourselves: our qualities, our capacities, our politics, our beauty (this latter, I hope to develop in my next post). Like Narcissus stuck by the lake or—better—like Narcissus drown in the lake, drown in itself breathing the water of his own reflection (happily ever after), we keep going until the day comes when, to misquote British poet Peter Reading, after heat waves and after heats deaths we reach absolute zero.

Which Aesthetics Do You Mean?

May 13, 2011 · Print This Article

I don’t know much about aesthetics. When my friends start talking, usually with plastic cups of wine in their hands, and tossing that word around I nod my head and pretend to know what they mean. But I don’t really. The problem is that the word has so many meanings and definitions vary depending on who’s using it. I never studied aesthetics in school, but it’s not as if I haven’t made an effort to educate myself. I read a little Kant and that helped, but not in any sort of practical way. When people say “aesthetics,” I’m still not sure what they are talking about.

When I saw the charming little book Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean?: Ten Definitions, I immediately picked it up. At only 94 pages, many of which are images, this slim book by Leonard Koren undertakes to clear the confusion. In the introduction Koren drills right down, writing “If you have this book in your hand you are most likely a creator or cultural worker who, on any number of occasions, has been seized by the desire to wrestle the terms ‘aesthetic’ or ‘aesthetics’ to the ground and strip them of their pretentions. This has probably occurred when you’ve heard or read ‘aesthetic’ or ‘aesthetics’ used in some vague or ambiguous way whose main purpose, it seemed, was to fill semantic dead space, as in I really like his uh, uh, ummm, aesthetics.” He’s right on all counts.

Which Aesthetics Do You Mean? is divided into two sections. The first section is simply ten definitions of aesthetics with concrete examples, and they are everyday definitions at that. For example, “a style or sensibility” and  ”a branch of Western philosophy concerned primarily with the nature of art and related phenomena.” These are the kinds of definitions I was expecting, but he also has some surprises in “a profession devoted to the beautification of the human body.” Well, I guess that’s aesthetics, too. By addressing without judgment all of the ways in which we use “aesthetics,” Koren allows us to consider the meanings and their relationship each other.

The second part of the book, however, is odd. Presented as “usage in context,” part two serves myriad functions. True to its title, Koren uses the words “aesthetic” and “aesthetics” in context, and next to each instance he provides the definition in brackets. It’s illustrative and funny. The oddness comes in the content. At its heart, it is an essay, but it becomes unexpectedly personal and nearly narcissistic with Koren discussing the ugly lawsuit with his ex-wife and what lead him to write his previous book Wabi-Sabi. I also found myself questioning the veracity of what I was reading and wondering if Koren hadn’t just presented this fictive example of aesthetics in action. But I don’t think so.

Despite its peculiarities, or perhaps because of them, when I finished reading Which Aesthetics Do You Mean?, I was sad. Ultimately, that’s how I judge a book.

Which Aesthetics Do You Mean? Leonard Koren. Imperfect Press, 2010.


Studio as Portal : Musing Carrie Gundersdorf’s summer 12×12

October 26, 2010 · Print This Article

I know it was a long time ago. We’re nearing the end of October, already, and for my tardiness I apologize. It’s just that this show has stuck with me for a couple months now, I’ve been doing some writing about it here and there, on scraps of paper or loose napkins–sites for thinking that get lost, wilt, tear or bleed. I wanted to take this opportunity to compile what I remember of those thoughts. I hope you’ll bear with me. I’ve always been the sort of person to write at a distance. It takes me a while to process things and put them in perspective. Perhaps for that reason, I have been unable to let On The Make go.

Studio as Portal:  Musing Carrie Gundersdorf

a summer 12×12 at the MCA

by Caroline Picard

We have not only traversed the region of pure understanding and carefully surveyed every part of it, but we have also measured it, and assigned to everything therein its proper place. But this land is an island, and enclosed by nature herself within unchangeable limits. It is the land of truth (an attractive word), surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the region of illusion, where many a fog-bank, many an iceberg, seems to the mariner, on his voyage of discovery, a new country, and, while constantly deluding him with vain hopes, engages him in dangerous adventures, from which he never can desist, and which yet he never can bring to termination. – Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

Gundersdorf’s show at the MCA this last summer included abstract drawings of planetary bodies. These works simultaneously point to the limits of human perception while embracing the uncertainty those limits provide. Such a philosophical position is difficult to occupy, for it confounds one’s preferred sense of security. Likely for that reason I was totally smitten with the show. While investigating a conceptual perception, Gundersdorf aligns herself with the history of painting, stepping off from Modernism’s abstract platform while incorporating contemporary tools for research and celebrating the very literal limitations of human understanding.

Months ago I heard a program on the radio about stars and galaxies. In that program a woman called up in order to ask if the images she’d seen of planets and stars were accurate. She wanted to know in order to anticipate what her world would look like when she died (and went to heaven). The ensuing conversation was remarkable as the host tried to answer her question. “Will it look like those pictures when I die, that’s what I want to know,” she said. “What will I see?” Although unruffled, he nevertheless paused. “It could look that way?” he said. “At the same time all of the images you see in books have been manipulated to highlight different data. It wouldn’t be as colorful, although I really don’t know what your eyes would be like and how you would see, so you might actually see a whole host of other colors. Or perhaps you wouldn’t see anything. It might be completely dark.  You might only feel the universe.” I believe the caller hung up unsatisfied.

The Cosmic Microwave Background is another illustration of the literal bounds of human knowledge. With a radio-wave telescope, scientists measure the microwave region of that wavelength. In doing so, it is possible to measure the Big Bang’s residual radiation. Because no one can explain this radiation without using the Big Bang as a model, it has become the preferred explanation of where “we” come from. Even with that theory, however, there is a ‘beyond’ to that microwave background. It is a conceptual beyond, however; we cannot “see/feel/measure”  it. We only posit its existence because the alternative would suggest a kind of Shel Silverstein drop off, where the universe ends as his infamous sidewalk. Just as Kant described the limits of understanding so the human being is incapable of going beyond certain perceptual bounds. Nevertheless there is a deep-seated impulse is to press past and conquer.

Not so with Gundersdorf.

She celebrates those boundaries in her work, using a combination of abstraction and lo-fi production (paper, color pencil) that seem so far removed from traditional celestial explications as to be unrelated. Her images, while based on scientific astral data, deconstruct that high-resolution imagery, breaking it down and simplifying it’s celestial character into blocks of color and thick radiating, parallel lines. Via that transcription, Gundersdorf destabilizes the assumptions of knowledge, pointing to an obvious post-modern subjectivity and pairing it with a limited ability. It is not simply that each individual is the center of his or her own universe (and thus create discrepancies in experience because of perception). It is also that our eyes are not astute enough to see  unequivocally. The customary images of outer space suggest an apprehension of that space, a mapping that conveys an impossible physical/visual experience. Consequently Gundersdorf’s work offers a more accurate depiction of my understanding of the environment outside the earth.

While referencing the language of modernism, she also undermines its self-assurance. As I see it, Modernism was an attempt to simultaneously dispute the previously accepted coherent universe (wherein the creator is a watchmaker and the world a watch, for instance) while celebrating the ability of a single individual to create monuments within an otherwise chaotic world. While Gundersdorf embraces and incorporates the impulse of abstraction, just as she is fully aware of the cannon she participates in, she nevertheless undermines the idea of a apprehension. While she interprets light, that light is artificial or illustrative. Even through the process of a single painting, during which time she no doubt studies a single image, she comes no closer to an objective “truth” of that image. Instead she develops a subjective relationship to her already interpretive source material. The light she works from is conceptual, intended to highlight certain scientific truths. The resulting work has a personal touch, creating a signifier of a faraway place.

In each piece her hand is ever present—this is not a slick photorealist surface, rather it is a surface that questions itself, borrowing naive materials to illustrate the naivete of our assumptions. It admits some deep insecurity, one perhaps endemic to present times, where the footing of an individual and his or her beliefs is unstable, shifting, subjective and flat. Nevertheless the character of her line, the painstaking way in which she colors the entire surface, is endearing to the subject and evidence of care. While it may examine unapprehendable distances and imperceivable phenomena, this work is not about alienation; perhaps it’s most important feature. It demonstrates, by of example, a way to deal with subjectivity, a way to deal with historical precedents and dialogues, without feeling overwhelmed. Because this work is  unapologetic–large scale drawings, with large, unaffected blocks of color– Gundersdorf shows a way to embrace the unknowing, to celebrate forays into intuitive and immeasurable spaces—to consider the space beyond one’s ken as a place for inspiration rather than fear.

Astral systems have always been fascinating places—almost inconceivable landscapes through which the earth sails. Rife with different phsyical properties and laws, outer space is bold and full of myth. It is a place we go to examine philosophical questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? It is also a space of hypothesis and conjecture, for outer space does not speak our language directly. It does not afford concrete answers. That’s why On The Make was so compelling to me, even relieving–because it began to talk about translating that space and gently soothing the out-of-focus-ness of existential answers. The answer, after all, is in divining those answers and putting them to paper. Perhaps those modernists were right about monuments after all?