Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Incremental Philosophical (and Political) Progress

Ben Davis pens a wonderful flight through the scramble for a new phrase to describe the new normal on in a very entertaining article titled "The Age of Semi- Post-Postmodernism." The era, the usefulness, and seemingly the ability to pass the philosophical laugh test of the term "postmodern" has had its run, he convincingly summarizes. Still, and not surprisingly for Ben, after he effectively exposes the vaguenesses of the competing heirs to Derrida, Mr. Davis himself ends with a nebulous call to action. As I find myself singing to Ben again and again (with apologies to the Beatles), "we'd all love to see the plan."

Mind you, the piece is a wonderful read and I highly recommend it. But the overall exercise of seeking and/or critiquing the inescapable new philosophy of our time brought up a few thoughts that I've been mulling over myself recently, and, well, this being my forum for mental regurgitation, let me see if I can string them together.

First was this bit highlighted on Andrew Sullivan's blog from Robert Nozick's book, Anarchy State and Utopia:
[T]he usual manner of presenting philosophical work puzzles me. Works of philosophy are written as though their authors believe them to be the absolutely final word on their subject. But it’s not, surely, that each philosopher thinks that he finally, thank God, has found the truth and built an impregnable fortress around it. We are all actually much more modest than that. For good reason. Having thought long and hard about the view he proposes, a philosopher has a reasonably good idea about its weak points; the places where great intellectual weight is placed upon something perhaps too fragile to bear it, the places where the unravelling of the view might begin, the unprobed assumptions he feels uneasy about...

No philosopher says: There’s where I started, here’s where I ended up; the major weakness in my work is that I went from there to here; in particular, here are the most notable distortions, pushings, shovings, maulings, gougings, stretchings, and chippings that I committed during the trip; not to mention the things thrown away and ignored, and all those avertings of the gaze.

The reticence of philosophers about the weaknesses they perceive in their own views is not, I think, simply a question of philosophical honesty and integrity, though it is that or at least becomes that when brought to consciousness. The reticence is connected with philosophers’ purposes in formulating views. Why do they strive to force everything into that one fixed perimeter? Why not another perimeter, or, more radically, why not leave things where they are? What does having everything within a perimeter do for us? Why do we want it so? (What does it shield us from?)
Indeed, as even Einstein eventually had to admit...the more we know about the universe, the more impossible/improbable it becomes to weave that knowledge together into a unified theory. Yet, even with all the information coming (in and) out our ears today, we apparently keep trying to see the big picture. Personally, I don't think that's any longer possible. I don't think a term or phrase or even highly developed theory is ever again going to truly do justice to how fragmented and furiously fast the world is moving. That pursuit has become futile. The more useful approach, to my mind, is the one Nozick seems to make your limited contributions fully aware that you have not offered "the absolutely final word on the subject." With that said, I'd like to now look more closely at what among the "non-absolutely final" thoughts Ben surveyed struck me as particularly poignant.

In arguing that "postmodernism is the cultural ideology of neoliberalism [as opposed to late captialism]," Ben pointed to the artwork of Josephine Meckseper (whose
current exhibition at Elizabeth Dee's space is a must-see!)
Take the installations of Josephine Meckseper. On the one hand, they do a good job of reflecting the main features of the contemporary economic and political landscape ("cognitively mapping" it, to use Jameson’s terminology). They reflect a flattened subjectivity, defined by a series of ephemeral, degraded commodity objects and advertising images, floating in a kind of nowhere space, cut off from any meaningful history. They weave together objects from various disjointed contexts into a disorienting montage, suggesting how an awareness of global connectedness has interpenetrated every aspect of experience. And they allude to the underbelly of consumer culture, mixing in allusions to strikes, war, corporate machinations and political protest from far-flung locations (the installations are even "meant to trigger a resemblance to the way store windows appear just before they are smashed by demonstrators," Meckseper told Interview).

Yet at the same time, Meckseper’s work has often lent itself to be read as a statement about the impossibility of any productive political consciousness today. Sylvère Lotringer writes approvingly of Meckseper that, "conflicting ideologies and opposing political parties are reduced to empty tags and merely consumed as ideas. . . . Presenting imagery of protest culture and revolutionary myths side by side with art installations, she exposes consumerist and counter-cultural discourses as if they belonged together." That you might as well play X-Box as organize against Arizona’s recent disgraceful anti-Latino initiatives -- that kind of cynicism may be highly useful to preserving the status quo, but it is not really a truth to be "exposed.
This brought to mind one of the themes of Johan Grimonprez's film "dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y," which in part explores how the power of radicals and revolutionaries (in particular those who resorted to hijacking planes to bring attention to their causes) has been co-opted by the media. Any event you can imagine, any revolutionary actions you can initiate, can be micro-branded, glamorized, deconstructed, and essentially repackaged to sell soap by the evening news. With that power in the hands of the media corporations, "consumerist and counter-cultural discourses" not only belong together...they're inseparable as far as their respective audiences are concerned.

Now part of Ben's generalized call to action seems to be steeped in a pessimism about change from within. In particular (and I hear this frequently about what everyone assumed would be a shift in priorities and focus in the art that gets shown and celebrated due to the Great Recession [which echoes very closely the same sentiments raised in the shadow of 9/11...although, admittedly we saw nary a shift following that event], Ben doesn't think our current economic situation will bring about any change. He notes
There was certainly a lot of talk about a "return to Keynesianism" in 2008-09 (just as there was a brief vogue for a "return to content" and a "return to sincerity" in art). But in fact, what we witnessed at the height of the post-Lehman Brothers financial plunge was an emergency banking rescue done by the government, but on the terms of superstitious respect for the "free market," leaving the power of private finance essentially untouched.

As of this writing at least, what we have looks like a minor inflection in the dominant ideology, not any full-blown change of direction. Glance again at the factors Lyotard lists above as providing the correlate for "postmodernism," and ask yourself, how many of these things have actually been reversed? None.
Many of those in the financial world I talk to (fringe benefit of my profession) insist, however, that re-regulation simply must happen and everyone serious about the economy knows it. Indeed, Germany just "announced strict measures to reduce speculation in government bonds and bank stocks." Other European nations report they will not follow suit, but they also seem to be very curious what it is that Germany knows that they don't know. (Speculation is that it's nothing more than Germany's greater exposure to Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal's economic turmoil.)

So here too, then, rather than some unified master plan offered as the final plan to save the world in a day, we see one country "radically" doing what it can toward an incremental adjustment to the big picture. As with philosophy, this approach seems the most useful path forward. Call it micro-radicalism or perhaps targeted revolutions.

It won't do much to satisfy our obscene addiction to instant gratification, but it might just spare us a highly disorganized (and I suspect ultimately pointless) rush to the barricades.

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Blogger George said...

Hal Foster... noted that postmodernism had "run into the sand."

"Postmodernism" "It makes you sound like an undergrad."

What's the problem? Way back when, there was Modernism, and formalism served as the "critical theory" of the time. Unfortunately even the domineering critics couldn't keep the troops in line. At the same time something wondrous happened "art became a profession" that was now taught in the universities. With Modernism being cropped out if existence a new theory was needed and it was needed in a hurry. For a number of reasons what we call "postmodernism" was adopted as the law of the land and reigned supreme until 2001.

Postmodern philosophy was prescient in understanding certain structual chances in society occurring in the latter half of the 20th century. Unfortunately, most of these ideas were misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misapplied.

Without dissecting it into pieces the question I would ask is why do we need a theory? Why do we need theory based art?

Supposing you can answer the question, then what theory"

I contend that theory, more correctly a philosophy, should serve to enlighten us about the age we are in, not justify the art we make. Hence Bourriaud's alterwhatzit is out as a possibility.

What do we need to think about in this theory/philosophy? What is unique about the present era? Information, how we access it, how we distribute it, how we communicate it, how we define ourselves with it.

Attempts to label the moment in art like "semi-post-postmodernism" are an attempt to reestablish a critical hegemony and not very interesting. The theories cannot be fitted to the art, they must relate to the era, otherwise it's just marketing and that's what we've had for the past 20 years.

5/19/2010 11:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

[T]he usual manner of presenting philosophical work puzzles me. Works of philosophy are written as though their authors believe them to be the absolutely final word on their subject.

I think he's been reading the wrong philosophers. Of course, philosophers of earlier times always seemed to be trying to find the pinnacle of truth, but no one that has been writing in the past 50 or 60 years fits into this model at all-- at least those that you can take seriously.

There's nothing new about an incrementalist view, but I always enjoyed this take on the matter:

5/19/2010 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

As long as I'm on a rant... Lets spin this a little further. Hive thinking, critical theory and such, tends to be cyclic. This occurs for a simple reason, ideas get used up and people have a short attention span and look for something new. Now truly "new" stuff comes out of the blue, but the day to day stuff just permutes the recent past.

So if I was trying to understand what was happening I'd be looking at the recent past, and fifty years ago (this just popped up on my radar). What this suggests is that the uberintellectual ambiguation theories of reality disenfranchise or dehumanizes the individual. The individual has been reduced to a PIN number.

Where is our identity located? How is it defined? What do we share with others?

5/19/2010 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger Teri Proschuk said...

"There was certainly a lot of talk about a "return to Keynesianism" in 2008-09 (just as there was a brief vogue for a "return to content" and a "return to sincerity" in art). But in fact, what we witnessed at the height of the post-Lehman Brothers financial plunge was an emergency banking rescue done by the government, but on the terms of superstitious respect for the "free market," leaving the power of private finance essentially untouched."

It doesn’t surprise me that there hasn’t been a return to sincerity in art. The economy has changed but society as a whole has not. People are still pining away for the same material goods that they were before. I think we would have to have a full blown depression for that kind of change to take place. The other issue is that some artists may be one trick pony’s who do not possess the tools and craftsmanship necessary to change the direction of their art. For a new movement on a wide spread scale to take place there would have to be shift not only in popular culture, but in higher education as well.

5/19/2010 01:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Why do we need theory based art?

...maybe theory gives you a point for perspective (logical or emotional), allowing you a standard to use as a measure id so desired.

much like if you have a theory (used in the sense of a paradigm) of what "thunder" is, you'll possibly see it as a meteorological model of juxtaposed air pressures or maybe you'll see it as proof of Thor's omnipotence or state of mind. Thing is, either way you have a means of coming to an understanding of "thunder". What you do with that understanding is up to your judgment.

I see no contradiction in holding concurrent theories of something. Just as I know the world through 5 senses, 5 theories can give me 5 points of perspective to understand given aspects of that something.

The current expectation that theory must evolve, likely is a reflection of Darwinian percepts applied to art. That art theory remains stasis within a continual flux permits metamorphosis in theories just as well.

5/19/2010 03:20:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Just because of evolutionary persistence I wouldn't rule out theory based art. I suspect that the old postmodern modes of theorizing are going to fall by the wayside or just become part of academia.

Over the last 50 years there has been a sequence of theoretical approaches used to justify one particular art or another. In their moment these theories all seemed reasonable and acceptable by some cadre of artworld participants. Eventually all fell to the wayside, sometimes through evolutionary changes but also by radical changes in thinking or taste.

Considering the length of time that postmodernist based thought held sway I would not be surprised to see the next great artist working from an entirely different perspective.

5/19/2010 04:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Intellectuals have to complexify everything. I didn't recognize my
personal definition of post-modernism in the Ben Davies article. To me, postmodern "simply" means an awareness of horizontal paradigms (in multiculturalism, in biodiversity, in cultural exchangisms, including between "high" and "low" arts,
the current and the past). This horizontalism of course functions
against the verticalism of: Modernism, The West, Your MFA, etc...

We have already talked here about the popular notion of Pluralism
as a new context for the fine arts. I think one of the major challenge for this new era is filtering the sheer amount information (textual, visual, aural, etc..) that we continually produce. It's an era that
calls for discernment. Either that or we celebrate the chaos
of it.

I also think we live in an era where archiving and categorization
has become utmost important subjects, enough that we have
symposiums strictly dedicated to these issues ("Do we keep all of Twitter? Should we keep everything, or do like the Romans did with the Bible, only keep the best parts?").

Also the new communications, like Youtube, makes Instantaneity
a new phenomenon. An artist can now find success in a matter of
days. Instantaneity is also the sad strategy of terrorism.

"Too many men, not enough time, how can I choose?": this is also the paradigm of sexuality in the days of Facebook.

About philosophers's interest in locking doors:

The philosopher (of today) writes books in hope to sustain a career and indeed a social status ("Where's my Honoris Causa?"). The wise man is... just wise. He just walks near the rivers and enjoy the company of animals. You have to go to him, he doesn't come to you. He's not preaching anything but to learn to enjoy life when you can and apprehend how things are in constant shift.

Cedric C

5/19/2010 06:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

I resist the term Globalism because that was obviously a postmodern awareness, but what you have today that you didn't have in the 1960's is a Saudi Arabia teenage kid playing with a brazilian teenage kid in an online videogame which story occurs in european medieval times, but of which server is positioned in China.

Now, that's new!

Cedric C

5/19/2010 06:19:00 PM  
Blogger The Reader said...

In much of the discussion of the relationship between theory and practice there still seems to be an implicit and quite crude Cartesian dualism at play (theory is mind practice is body).

One of the possibilities of a "micro-radicalism", (as I understand that term) is to find much more productive divisions in experience and ideas. This is not to say in some simplistic new-agey way that mind and body are simply "one", but rather consider how to differentiate integrated systems of mind body functioning, so that those systems can realise some of their radical potential (co-evolution of theory and practice).

One theorist who I think has done some great around these ideas is Brian Massumi here's an interview with him entitled of Microperception and Micropolitics.

5/19/2010 09:14:00 PM  

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