Thursday, May 02, 2013

Perhaps the Means Justifies the Means

Exitus acta probat. The ends justifies the deed (or the means). 

This is the motto on George Washington's family coat of arms, and it is believed to be the first American President's defense of the bloodshed it took to win the Revolutionary War. With the advantage of hindsight, it's easy to agree with our founding father on this point in this context.

But I'm beginning to wonder lately whether, culturally, we've taken that idea past its logical extremes. I'm beginning to wonder whether we're so consumed by the ends that we've lost sight of the significance of the means. And I don't just mean for wars or other big decisions that put human lives at risk, I mean for smaller, daily decisions that put our very humanity at risk.

In the foreword to Jacues Ellul's analysis of the effects of our increasingly technical culture, The Technological Society (1964), Robert Mertom wrote:
By technique [Ellul] means far more than machine technology. Technique refers to any complex of standardized means for attaining a predetermined result. Thus, it converts spontaneous and unreflective behavior into behavior that is deliberate and rationalized. The Technical Man is fascinated by results, by the immediate consequences of setting standardized devices into motion. He cannot help admiring the spectacular effectiveness of nuclear weapons of war. Above all, he is committed to the never-ending search for "the one best way" to achieve any designated objective.

Ours is a progressively technological civilization: by this Ellus means that the ever-expanding and irreversible rule of technique is extended to all domains of life. It is a civilization committed to the quest for continually improved means to carelessly examined ends. Indeed, technique transforms ends into means. What was once prized in its own right now becomes worthwhile only if it helps achieve something else. And conversely, technique turns means into ends. "Know-how" takes on an ultimate value. [emphasis mine]
The problem that even Ellul couldn't have predicted back in 1964 is how hyper-connected we've become, which has only served to decrease how carefully our ends can be examined. Yesterday in his New York Times column Thomas Friedman noted:
Something really big happened in the world’s wiring in the last decade, but it was obscured by the financial crisis and post-9/11. We went from a connected world to a hyperconnected world. I’m always struck that Facebook, Twitter, 4G, iPhones, iPads, high-speech broadband, ubiquitous wireless and Web-enabled cellphones, the cloud, Big Data, cellphone apps and Skype did not exist or were in their infancy a decade ago when I wrote a book called “The World Is Flat.” All of that came since then, and the combination of these tools of connectivity and creativity has created a global education, commercial, communication and innovation platform on which more people can start stuff, collaborate on stuff, learn stuff, make stuff (and destroy stuff) with more other people than ever before.

And Friedman notes how this new hyperconnectively is really a good thing for people who are self-motivated. They can get things done with speeds unimagined before. But getting things done is a good thing only so long as the ends to those means are a carefully considered (i.e., good) thing. Moving at light speed for its own sake, and with the casting aside of nonproductive things that moving so quickly requires, is a path to guaranteed regret.

Just last weekend, I had a conversation with a high school classmate I hadn't seen in many years, and we realized we both had come to a similar conclusion. Between the time we left high school and just recently, we had been so focused on achieving our life's goals, we stopped doing some of the things that we really enjoyed (for her it was making ceramics; for me it was playing tennis and piano). After taking them back up again, we were both not only very pleased with the pleasure they brought us, but a bit upset we had ever stopped doing them. Yes, we had accomplished a lot in the interceding years, but these "means" toward a happier life had been put aside quite foolishly we realized. The means toward achieving our goals could have/should have been more balanced with the things we love doing.


Someone recently shared a quote from Leonard Cohen, who reportedly said "Success is survival" (and he should know). When you stand back and look at the short-lived "success" stories of people who climbed to a certain height only to then drop off the other side and disappear altogether, Cohen's definition rings true. And if survival is the "ends," then how you climb, so much more so than how quickly you get to an imagined "top," would seem to be everything.

5 Comments:

Blogger A Rose by any other name... said...

It's so great thatwe small a art world folks out in the Interlands can join your BIG A world discussions, Edward. You've hit on a smoking series of topics lately.

I too have been thinking lately  about the peculiar nexus of history, culture, art and philosophy that is embodied in Gen ET, and its impact on the status quo.

These younger folks, the “Enlarged Thumbs” generation, are now coming into their wage earning/art buying years and are finding their unique voices. Critical Realism is the philosophy for their age. They know themselves as mind-dependent aspects of the world, observing its mindself. Irony is their métier; conceptual realism, their self-expression. 

Theirs is the first generation to have been extensively interconnected, from early adolescence onward, and they have had the great good fortune to have come of age in a world that facilitates relationships between the self, its environment, and “the other.”

Knowing themselves as inheritors of a threatened world, members of this community have always expected to take part in critical discussions.  They are finely tuned to movements as soon as they arise, both significant and trite, and they form a jury that filters one from the other.

How wonderful it is for them that emerging artists can be seen 24/7, in national and international (on line) juried exhibitions; portfolios viewed and discussed wherever there's an IPhone. Those inspired enough to write and speak about art can reach ever wider audiences, and art aficionados may follow great shows without ever leaving home. 

What all of this means, I think, is that when the shake-out is over, the traditional gatekeepers of the international art world will have given way to a global art community that is better educated, more diffuse, and much, much more independent of mind. The members of this community bring esthetic sensibilities that have been shaped differently than yours and mine. They have never NOT known the awful hawking thrall that accompanies real-time breaking news . They are uniquely attuned to the sense of "the decisive moment."  For them, to borrow from physicist Lee Smollen, "the experience of...reality being in the present moment is not an illusion, but the deepest clue...to the fundamental nature of reality." 

Weaned on the OJ chase, Gen ET cut their eyeteeth on TV reality shows and honed them in virtual reality worlds. They are possessed of the fearless eye and know that nothing is so insignificant as to be without meaning and that with time all will be revealed.

Witness the comparative stories told by photographer William Eggleston's frost bound refrigerator freezer (1972) filled with an overabundance of boxed meals and the full-frame meat paintings of emerging twenty-something artist, Tess Barbato.

I look at Eggleston's work and am reminded of the era when hippies by the thousands fled frozen homes filled with superficial excess of all kinds. Rebelling against the Madison Avenue mindset, they went searching for the real and the meaningful and they inculcated this desire for authenticity in their children and grandchildren.

Barbato's work represents an oh-so-pragmatic Gen ET resolution of this struggle. The flesh and blood of life is meant to be eaten now. You must chose wisely, because you can look at it and your can experience it, but you can't stockpile it.

5/02/2013 02:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life's a Marathon not a sprint. some people aint designed for the long haul or have the luxury of choice. the one thing about the marathon is not rusting out before wearing out.you know why I dont play guitar anymore? I fell out of love with it.

Im starting to get bored with art and their crooked game. Odds Against tomorrow is a very good movie made in NYC 1959 black and white Robert wise director. I use technology to make sculpture. It is a very violent act when I press the green button. I leave the building I cant take the noise and polluted air anymore.

5/02/2013 02:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honestly, Anon 2:56, I don't think life's a race at all.

5/03/2013 07:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life's a War with a a series of endless Battles. thats the way the ruler of this plane set it up. Humans will be obsolete soon, then the shit gets realy interesting. then the real war starts.

yesterday ,I found a 30lb cylindrical chunk of pure carbon that was used in a communcations rig in the 1950s the guy running the yard sale said it was his grandfathers .

5/03/2013 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

In the Friedman quote, it seems the operative word is 'stuff'. Connectivity requires lots of stuff and it supplants interest in the physical world. We operate in the world but are less a part of it. I worry about the consequences of our inattention.

" the quest for continually improved means to carelessly examined ends." Perfect.

Thank you.

5/08/2013 11:42:00 AM  

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