Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Rethinking Modernism, Somewhat

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

The new issue of Speculations (#5) is now out, dealing with speculative realism and aesthetics. It includes an article of mine, which is really a preview of a section of my forthcoming book, The Universe of Things. But the whole issue is interesting, with articles by, among others, Graham Harman, N. Katherine Hayles, Jon Cogburn and Mark Allan Ohm, Matija Jelaca, Miguel Penas López, and others.

But I wanted particularly to make a short comment on Robert Jackson‘s article “The Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks 2″ (part 1 appeared in a previous issue of Speculations) — or rather on one part of the article, since it is a rich, complex and long one. Jackson is interested in the ways that speculative realism is related to modernist aesthetics. Specifically, he writes about the art critic Michael Fried. In the 1960s, Fried (an inheritor and reviser of Clement Greenberg) famously wrote about art works and/as objects, and made a fundamental distinction between “absorption” and “theatricality.” Fried’s concern was to uphold the modernist tradition in painting and visual art that had previously been defined by Greenberg, and to defend this tradition against the new (at the time) avant-garde strategies of minimalism and conceptualism. Fried (allied in this with Stanley Cavell) gave an account in which great modernist artworks absorb us, and show forth as present to us, precisely by receding from our efforts to capture and contain them. Jackson notes that this is very close to Harman’s aesthetics of “allure,” in which objects attract us precisely by receding from all our efforts to contain and comprehend them — we can only allude to them, metaphorically and indirectly. (Harman’s love for Clement Greenberg’s media-specific self-reflexive formalism makes sense in terms of this aesthetic stance). The opposiing term of “theatricality,” which Fried disparages and sees as the aesthetic failure of minimalism in the 1960s, has to do with the way the literal presence of the object is completely blank and empty — so that the “art” happens exclusively in the mind of the observer. Self-referring modernist works force the contemplating spectator to go outside herself, as part of the impossible task of reaching the receding artwork; minimalist works are simply “there,” with a thereness that precludes any such movement.

Jackson notes that both sides in the dispute mapped by Fried are anti-anthropocentric, in the ways maintained today by speculative realism — they both concern the way that objects escape from correlation with our perceptual categories. He suggests that the two artistic movements are therefore analogous to the two major tendencies of speculative realism. Minimalism has a strategy of what Jackson calls Demonstration, the strategy of Meillassoux and Brassier: “a passive, inert material reality can be epistemologically demonstrated through the formal, inferential properties of thought and an extrinsic principle of the fact, so that thought becomes radically divorced from a non-anthropomorphic being.” The modernist works championed by Greenberg and Fried adopt a strategy much like that of what Jackson calls Description, operating in Harman and other OOO thinkers, and also in a different way in Grant’s neo-Schellingian version of speculative realism: “reality is composed of fundamental entities, objects, things, forces and powers which exist in their own right; the relations of which, in their specific limitations or groundings, are no different in kind from the epistemological limits of cognition. This is an intrinsic principle of the thing. The limitations of the correlation between thinking and being are radicalised and hypostatised such that they are turned into the characteristics of relationality in general.”

I found Jackson’s analysis to be powerful and useful, although my knowledge of art historical discourse, and in particular of the theories of Greenberg and Fried, is quite limited. (For which reason, I am not sure how accurate my brief summary of Jackson’s article is. My apologies to him for any misapprehensions). But what I wondered about is this. What happens when we consider other sorts of 20th & 21st century image production, which are not contained within high art traditions? Jackson notes how Fried has recently, and belatedly, turned his attention to contemporary multimedia and new media art works, thus extending his theoretical musings beyond just painting. But these are still High Art works that are mostly situated in galleries.

What I would like to think about is, how the tradition of aesthetics traced by Jackson through the theorizations of modernist (and even postmodernist) art historians relates to other forms of visual (and audiovisual) production? I am thinking here of cinema and post-cinema, but also of things like comic books. At one point, Jackson quotes Stanley Cavell’s distinction between painting on the one hand, and photography and cinema on the other: “To maintain conviction in our connection with reality, to maintain our presentness, painting accepts the recession of the world. Photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it. The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it…” Jackson goes on to speak at length about Cavell’s Friedian formula for painting, as an art in which we are present but the world recedes from us. I’d like to think, however, about the other half of Cavell’s formulation, which has become a crucial principle in film studies: the way in which cinema renders the presence of the world, but with ourselves being absent. How would this affect our discussion of speculative realism?

An even better example of what I have in mind is Burke Hilsabeck’s brilliant article “Accidental Specificity: Modernism from Clement Greenberg to Frank Tashlin.” Hilsabeck gives a bravura comparison between Clement Greenberg’s famous essay “Art and Kitsch,” and Frank Tashlin’s 1955 film, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Artists and Models. Hilsabeck notes that “Artists and Models begins by framing the same problem [as that posed by Greenberg], that of medium-specificity and the conflict between avant-garde and kitsch, while reaching a dramatically different set of conclusions.” Tashlin’s film, and even more the “painting” that Lewis accidentally makes within its storyline, is “widescreen, composed somehow of both depth and an overweening superficiality, aglow in garish Technicolor.” It systematically opposes all the aesthetic values championed by Greenberg: flatness, automony, purity of design, etc. (Again, I am oversimplifying a complex argument). But the point is, that Tashin’s shamelessly decorative, externally referential, and self-consciously obvious aesthetic is as big and important a part of what happened to images in the 20th century as either the works championed by Greenberg and Fried, and those they disparaged. This is part of a larger question — can we give an account of mid-20th century visual production that takes, say, Jackson Pollack and Jack Kirby equally seriously? What would it look like to theorize art in a way that had as much room for comic-book pictorialism as it had for abstract expressionism? What would happen if we then extended this history, and this theorization, to the present day? And how would this broader understanding of visual culture relate to the philosophical questions raised by speculative realism?

I have no answers here, only questions raised by Jackson’s brilliant — but to my mind incomplete — formulations.

Value Experience

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Here is the text of one of my talks from the SLSA conference this weekend. It was for a panel (part of a stream) on "Towards a Stengers-Whitehead Lexicon of the Nonhuman."

Alfred North Whitehead writes in "Civilized Universe," the sixth lecture in his book Modes of Thought, that "we have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe" (MT 111). Isabelle Stengers remarks, rather sardonically, that this "demand" on Whitehead's part is "foolish," because it "challenges philosophy to refrain indulging its favourite sport, catching commonsensical positions into the clutches of "either… or" alternatives" (Stengers Claremont talk, 12). Stengers then goes on to comicaly imagine a Socrates who accepted and even celebrated the "value experiences" of all his fellow Athenian citizens, instead of striving to deface those experiences by proving that none of his interlocutors knew what they were talking about.

Following Stengers, I'd like to consider what it might really mean to refrain from defacing value experiences. I take it that this largely applies to the "value experiences" of others than ourselves. And respecting the value experiences of others is not always an easy thing to do. I certainly don't want religious fundamentalists who deny the theory of evolution and claim that the Earth is only 6,000 years old to be teaching my children. But living as an atheist in a common world with religious believers, I also reject defacing the value experience of those believers, in the way that "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens have done.

I also want to work through the implications of Whitehead's claim that such "value experience… is the very essence of the universe." But doing this demands that we pass beyond the human. For Whitehead's claims here, as always, are cosmological in scope — or as Stengers puts it, cosmopolitical. Other entities aside from human beings also have "value experiences" that we have no right to deface. We need to take some account, at least, of the value experiences of dogs and flies and clams, of trees and slime molds and bacteria, and even of pebbles, drops of water, and stars.

To this extent, Graham Harman and the other thinkers of Object Oriented Ontology are right to regard Whitehead as an exemplary anti-anthropocentric thinker, an anti-correlationist avant la lettre. For Whitehead no less than for Harman, "all relations are on the same footing" (Harman 2008, 4). This means that, for Whitehead just as for OOO, the particular relation that is the obsessive concern of post-Cartesian and post-Kantian epistemology — the relation between human beings as subjects, and the objects that they happen to perceive — does not have any unique or special philosophical status. Epistemology loses its centrality, as the problem of knowledge is just one instance of the more general problem of how entities relate to, and interact with, one another. For Whitehead, physical causality and mental intentionality are just two among the many ways in which entities "prehend" one another. For Harman, similarly, both "vicarious causation" and metaphorical "allusion" are instances of sensual contact. For Whitehead and Harman alike, the problem of relations is therefore ultimately an aesthetic one.

Whitehead's anti-anthropocentrism, shared by OOO, also implies that relations among entities — and, in particular, relations of sensation and perception — cannot be reduced, in the manner of British empiricism, to atomistc "sense impressions" in the "mind" of a human observer — or more generally in the mind of one of the entities in the relationship. Harman rightly insists that we encounter, not isolated impressions, but whole objects. Citing Husserl, Harman argues that an "intentional object" is more than just a "bundle of adumbrations" (Harman 2011b, 24). Even though I may only see particular "adumbrations" of a tree, it is indeed a tree that I am actually seeing. The tree is real; it cannot be reduced to the status of being a mere mental construction (as Hume would suggest), or even the sum of its various actual and possible adumbrations (as Merleau-Ponty argues — Harman 2011b, 24-25). It's not the mind that unites multiple perceptions into the figure of a tree; rather, the tree itself is already doing this. For Whitehead, similarly, our "ideas" are always "determined to particular existents," rather than being ungrounded universals (PR 138). In this way, "an actual entity is present in other actual entities" (PR 50). We do not just receive isolated impressions, which we would then only combine in our minds. In any experience, "the datum includes its own interconnections" already (PR 113).

Indeed, Whitehead goes still further than this. He doesn't just claim that the existence of an entity cannot be reduced to the sum of another entity's "impressions" and "ideas" about it. He also argues, beyond this, that the atomistic perceptions upon which British empiricism bases its account of experience are trivial and unimportant. At best, they are just minor refinements of a much more basic form of experience. And this is directly connected with Whitehead's dismissal of anthropocentrism. It may well be, Whitehead concedes, that the "clearly envisaged details" of distinct perception "exalt men above animals, and animals above vegetables, and vegetables beyond stones" (MT 109). But these "details" play only a minor role in comparison to the vague and diffuse "background" out of which they emerge. "If we forget the background," he writes, "the result is triviality" (MT 108). Indeed, consciousness is a highly specialized and extremely rare form of feeling, which "only arises in a late derivative phase of complex integrations" (PR 162). Most thought, or sentience, or sensibility, or experience — both in ourselves and in other beings — consists in "simple physical feelings" that are not themselves conscious (PR 236).

The upshot of this is that we need to stop congratulating ourselves upon the breadth and subtlety of our consciousness and self-consciousness. We ought to recognize, instead, that "thought" is a much humbler, and much more common, phenomenon than we usually assume. Thought — or sentience, or experientiality — happens in many ways and on many levels. It is not just a matter of concepts, or computation, or cognition. It includes all of these, but also extends beneath them, or behind them. Thought doesn't require rational understanding, or a cogito. It doesn't even require a brain — as recent studies of brainless organisms like trees, slime molds, and bacteria have clearly shown.

Deleuzians — starting with Deleuze himself — love to cite Spinoza's dictum that we do not know what a body can do. But it also true, for a symmetrically opposite reason, that we do not really know what thought can do. For often thought does far less, and operates far more diffusely — than we know. Most thought takes place below our threshold of conscious awareness. Cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind are quite aware of this. The cognitivists are entirely right to point up the importance of nonconscious mental processing. My only problem with them is that they are content to stop with cognition. They need to extend their views to also include noncognitive and precognitive experience. This is what Whitehead calls "feeling" — and what Kant already points to in his discussion of aesthetic experience, or intuitions without concepts, in the Third Critique.

Timothy Morton makes much the same point about thought, in the context of OOO. Morton suggests that, when I perceive a pencil lying on a table, my relation to the pencil is not all that different from the table's own relation to the pencil. If I the pencil is the "intentional object" of my thought, then it is a kind of intentional object for the table also. In saying this, I am of course not making the claim that tables are wont to reflect upon ontology. Rather, I am trying to point out that reflecting upon ontology, or contemplating Being, is not that significant a feature of our own mental lives either. Here Heidegger's critique of thematization, and Harman's extension of this, are as much to the point as are Whitehead's observations on how we overestimate "clear and distinct" perception. Our inner mental lives mostly consist mostly of far more mundane and situated practices than conceptualization. The table holds up the pencil; but I am also holding up the pencil, when I contemplate it, or when I grasp it in order to write.

This line of argument also entails that perception and causality are pretty much the same thing; or at least that they are varieties of the same thing. Whitehead distinguishes between "causal efficacy" and "presentational immediacy" (PR 120-121). The former involves the feeling of being caused, or more broadly of cause and effect; while the latter has to do with conscious representation. But for Whitehead, they are both modes of perception, or forms of prehension. Harman also sees causal relations and metaphorical allusions alike as being ways in which otherwise separate entities nonetheless enter into vicarious contact. Timothy Morton generalizes this, when hee describes the aesthetic as the realm of causal relations. For OOO and Whitehead alike, thought is primordially aesthetic, and ultimately inseparable from physical causality. If A contemplates or otherwise perceives B, this means that B is a cause of A.

Thus far I have been pointing out the similarities between Whitehead's metaphysics and that of OOO. But this discussion also leads us to a crucial difference between Whitehead's philosophy and OOO. And no, I am not referring here to the well-known dispute over what Harman calls "relationism," or what Levi Bryant calls the difference between internal and external relations. Far too much ink has been spilled on this point already, and I do not think the discussion is profitable any more. Rather, I would like to suggest that the really important difference between Whitehead and OOO has to do, not so much with whether and how we prioritize relations, as it does with the ontological status of this humbler form of thought that they both espouse.

Things think, for Harman, but only under certain conditions. Harman rejects panpsychism, according to which — he says — "anything that exists must also perceive." Harman instead argues that "anything that relates must perceive… This means that entities have psyches accidentally, not in their own right" (Harman 2008, 9). Even shale and cantaloupe perceive and think and display intentionality, Harman maintains, insofar as they come into contact with us, or with one another. But according to Harman, such contact is merely contingent. Conversely, even human beings do not perceive and think and intend in their inner depths, but only on their outer surfaces. Thought, for Harman as for the phenomenologists, is always necessarily intentional. To think means to think about something, and therefore to relate to something — and indeed to correlate with something. But as such, thought for Harman is necessarily vicarious, or occasional (Harman 2009, 221).

To state this in other terms, it is always possible, according to Harman, that a particular entity does not relate to anything at all. Harman tells us that "the name for an object that exists without relating, exists without perceiving, is a sleeping entity, or a dormant one… Dormant objects are those which are real, but currently without psyche. Each night we make ourselves as dormant as we can, stripping away the accidental accretions of the day and gathering ourselves once more in the essential life where we are untouched by external relations" (Harman 2008, 9).

When I hear this, I cannot help asking: to sleep, perchance to dream? To the extent that dreaming is internally generated, its very possibility shows us that the psyche exists and functions even in the absence of external perception or stimulation. And, to the extent that dreaming does respond to events outside the dreamer, we have evidence that what Harman calls "withdrawal" is never total or absolute, even when the dreamer is not explicitly conscious of these external events. Harman seems to envisage ontological withdrawal as an impossibly dreamless sleep, one altogether devoid of thought or sensation, and therefore blissfully free from any sort of correlation whatsoever.

Whitehead, in contrast, never envisages such a blank utopia. Things don't need to relate, in order to dream or to feel. They do so intrinsically, as part of their very being. Panpsychism claims that anything that exists must also think; but — contra Harman — this does not necessarily mean that anything that exists must also "perceive." At least not if we understand "perception" as a matter of intentionality and presentational immediacy. If ontological equality means anything, it means that all entities in the universe, without exception, are sentient or experiential. In other words, where OOO claims that everything is an object, Whitehead rather claims that everything is a subject: "apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness" (PR 167).

Now, of course this distinction is not quite as absolute as it sounds. "Subject" and "object" are only relative terms: unsurprisingly, since they form a system together. Subjective experience in Whitehead perpetually perishes, and thereby passes over into the "objective immortality" of being a datum for subsequent acts of experience. Conversely, objects in OOO exhibit their own sort of subjectivity, insofar as "intentionality is not a special human property at all, but an ontological feature of objects in general" (Harman 2007b, 205). For OOO, all entities have their own inner being or "alien phenomenology" (Bogost).

Nonetheless, there is still a significant difference between the two positions. For Harman and Morton, causality and aesthetic experience are restricted to what they call the "sensuous" realm. The deep inner essence of objects remains untouched. For Whitehead, however, the conflation of causality and aesthetics is universal; there is no deep "substantial" (or "real") realm in contrast to the "sensual" one. "Experience" cannot be so restricted, because it is a common, generic feature of all entities. As long as there is something rather than nothing, there is, at the very least, an instance of simple physical feeling. That is to say, "thought" exists — or better, it happens — even in the absence of what the phenomenologists call intentionality, and of what the empiricists call "perception."

My current project is to work out what it might mean to thus posit an "image of thought" (as Deleuze would say) that is nonintentional, and thereby noncorrelational or uncorrelated. I take a hint for this from the way that Deleuze suggests a contrast between Husserl — for whom, as Deleuze puts is, "all consciousness is consciousness of something"), and Bergson — who "more strongly" asserts, Deleuze says, that "all consciousness is something" (Deleuze 1986, 56). As I have already mentioned, I agree with Whitehead that "thought" cannot be equated to "consciousness"; this would require some revision of Deleuze's formulas. Nonetheless, I maintain that the more primordial modes of thought — or of sentience, or experience, or "feeling" — can be something before they are about something, before they establish anything like a correlation with things outside of themselves. Such modes of thought are not solipsistic, because they do not refer back to themselves any more than they refer to other things. They are "vague" and indistinct, as Whitehead says, but for this very reason they are no more self-contained than they are outwardly referential.

A better "image" of this sort of thought might be that which is found in autism. I say this on condition that we cease to regard autism pejoratively, as a failure to adhere to neurotypical norms, or as the medicalized incapacity to develop a "theory of mind." Instead, we must understand autism as an original mode of being in the world — as the neurodiversity movement has advocated, and as scholars in the field of disability studies are beginning to understand (Savarese & Savarese 2012, 1). In working through the consequences of this new understanding, Erin Manning suggests that, in point of fact, autistics are stigmatized for not approaching the world "according to standard human-centered expectations" (Manning 2013, 227). Instead, she says, autistics are in fact acutely sensitive beyond the human. They are responsive to "resonances across scales and registers of life, both organic and inorganic"; the testimony of autistics themselves indicates that, for them, "everything is somewhat alive," and therefore an object of empathy and concern (225-226). We might say that autistics are inherently non-correlationist; they do not focus their intentionality upon particular chosen objects, but exhibit a more diffuse and wide-bandwidth sort of sentience. While there are risks in any metaphorical extensions of aspects of human experience to entities in the world more generally, I would still suggest that autism offers us a more adequate "image of thought" than the one provided by phenomenology.

Manning goes on to suggest that autistic experiences may provide us with "a transversal, ontogenetic concept of the ethical," — one that "can never begin with the human, or with the body as such" (Manning 2013, 255). I would like to suggest that such a concept of the ethical is close to what Whitehead means by "value experience." For value, so understood, in intrinsic to the primordial feeling that is the heart of experience, to some extent at least, for every actually existing entity. It isn't just human beings (or even just human beings and other mammals) who have value experience. Trees and slime molds have values and meanings too; and so even do rocks and stars and neutrinos, at least to a minimal extent. This is why "value experience" is the very essence of the universe, and why Whitehead says that we have no right to deface it. For Whitehead, value is immanent to experience as such. Valuation is a universal activity, rather than a specifically human imposition upon an object-world that would otherwise be passive, inert, valueless, and meaningless.

Whitehead insists upon the immanence of value and meaning to the immediate, everyday experience of all the entities in the world that have experience. This puts Whitehead at odds both with moral absolutists, for whom the only acceptable values and meanings are their own, and to relativists, for whom values and meanings are nothing more than arbitrary, extrinsically imposed norms. Whitehead's ethics is neither categorical and absolute, nor is it merely empirical. Rather, Whitehead subordinates ethics to aesthetics, and derives his ethics only from aesthetics. This is something that many people find difficult to accept. But today, as we come to realize that — in the words of Bruno Latour — "we have never been modern," and as — in the face of ecological and economic crises alike — we are no longer at liberty to ignore what Stengers calls the cosmopolitical aspects of our situation, Whitehead's aestheticist account of value experience shows its full relevance. It is from within Whitehead's aesthetic envisagement, not just of human life, but of the cosmos, that we must understand the ethical injunction I cited at the beginning of this talk: that "we have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe."


Sunday, March 8th, 2009

A footnote from work in progress:

There is a hidden affinity between the aesthetics of Deleuze and of Adorno. For both thinkers, the authentic work of art resists an otherwise ubiquitous culture of commodification, by virtue of its force of negativity (Adorno) or of counter-actualization (Deleuze). Deleuze’s account of how modernist art works to “prevent the full actualization” of the event to which it responds, and to reverse “the techniques of social alienation” into “revolutionary means of exploration,” echoes Adorno’s insistence that it is “only by virtue of the absolute negativity of collapse” that art can “enunciate the unspeakable: utopia.” For both thinkers, and despite their radical differences in vocabulary, art restores potentiality by derealizing the actual. The question that haunts aesthetics today is whether such strategies of derealization are still practicable, in a time when negation and counter-actualization have themselves become resources for the extraction of surplus value.

Why Porn Now?

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

The German art magazine Texte Zur Kunst is planning a forthcoming issue “which deals with the production, reception and theoretization of pornography.” They are including a survey in which they ask a large number of people for brief statements about the status of pornography today, asking (among other things) Do you agree with the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and political conditions?” Here’s my response:

Why Porn Now? In fact, I don’t believe that Now is the time. Of course, there’s more stuff available these days than ever before: extreme porn, gonzo porn, DIY porn, and what have you. Explicit images are everywhere. No fetish, no kink, is so obscure that you can’t find a group devoted to it on the Net, complete with ready-to-download videos. But I find it hard to regard all this as a triumph of anything besides niche marketing. Today, in the era of globalization, electronic media, and post-Fordist flexible accumulation, everything is a commodity. We have reached the point at which even the most impalpable and evanescent, or intimate and private, aspects of our lives — not just physical objects, but services and favors, affects and moods, styles and atmospheres, yearnings and fantasies, experiences and lifestyles — have all been quantified, digitized, and put up for sale. It’s true, of course, that there are many social forces opposed to the proliferation of pornography, and more generally of sexual fantasies and possibilities. In the United States, voters routinely approve anti-homosexual ordinances, and politicians and preachers score points by demanding action to stem the flood of “obscenity.” But really, isn’t this hysterical moralism just the flip side of marketing? The main effect of these crusades is to give pornography, and more generally all forms of nonprocreative sex, the shiny allure of transgression and taboo. And that, in turn, only serves to stimulate the consumer demand for porn-as-commodity, and sex-as-commodity…

In fact, there is nothing more banal than the spectacle of a right-wing politician who turns out to have a passion for teenage boys, or the minister of a fundamentalist megachurch who is discovered to be hiring rent boys on the side. (I cite only the two most recent of the incessant pseudo-scandals that make headlines in the American media). It’s no longer possible to understand these pathetic closet cases in terms of Freudian repression, or the Lacanian Symbolic, or any of the old categories of depth psychology. Rather, their logic is a commodity logic: fetishism in the Marxist sense, instead of the Freudian one. All our affects and passions are perfectly interchangeable, subject to the law of universal equivalence. That is to say, all of them are commodities, detached from the subjective circumstances of their affective production, and offered up for sale in the marketplace. Today our fantasies and desires — indeed, “our bodies, ourselves” — seem to be outside us, apart from us, beyond our power. And this is a very different situation from that of their being repressed, and buried deep within us. Commodities have a magical attraction — we find them irresistable and addictive — because they concretize and embody the “definite social relations” (as Marx puts it) that we cannot discover among ourselves. In the fetishism of commodities, Marx says, these social relations take on “the fantastic form of a relation between things.” The secret sex life of the right-wing politician or preacher is thus a sort of desperate leap, an attempt to seek out those social relations that are only available in the marketplace, only expressible as “revealed preferences” in the endless negotiations of supply and demand. In short, such a secret life is nothing more (or less) than a way of getting relief by going shopping — which is something that we all do. This realization dampens down whatever Schadenfreude such incidents might otherwise afford me.

Therefore, I don’t accept “the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and poltical conditions.” To the contrary: there is nothing exceptional, central, or privileged about pornography and the “pornographic” today. Pornography simply conforms to the same protocols and political conditions, the same commodity logic, as do all other forms of production, circulation, and consumption. Porn today isn’t the least bit different from cars, or mobile phones, or running shoes. It embodies a logic of indifferent equivalence, even as it holds out the thrilling promise of transgression and transcendence — a promise that, of course, it never actually fulfills.

Is it possible to imagine a pornography freed from this logic? Perhaps some recent writings by Samuel R. Delany provide an alternative. In novels like The Mad Man and Phallos, Delany envisions a sexuality pushed to the point of extremity and exhaustion. There are orgies of fucking and sucking, elaborate games of dominance and submission, and episodes of violence and destruction, together with enormous quantities of piss and shit and sweat and cum. Yet there’s no sense of transgression in these texts. Instead, the meticulously naturalistic thick description places these episodes firmly in the realm of the everyday. Delany presents “extreme” sex as a form of civility and community, an adornment of life, a necessary part of the art of living well. Delany’s is the only writing I know that answers Michel Foucault’s call for an ethics/aesthetics of the body and its pleasures, freed from the dreary dialectics of sexuality and transgression. As such, it provides an alternative as well to the relentless commodification that permeates every corner of our postmodern existence.

Davide Grassi

Thursday, March 16th, 2006


The next event in the DeRoy Lecture series is an appearance by the Slovenian artist Davide Grassi, presenting his “anti-entertainment interactive movie,” DEMO-KINO: VIRTUAL BIOPOLITICAL AGORA. (More information available here).

DemoKino is a virtual parliament that through topical film parables provides the voters (participants) with the opportunity to decide on issues that are, paradoxically, becoming the essence of modern politics: the questions of life. The project questions not only the utopia of contemporary virtual forum that is supposed to open ways for a more direct and influential participation but also points out a much deeper problem of modern democracy (virtual as well). With its reduced narrativeness – the story is built on the ‘pro and contra’ inner dialogues of the protagonist who is led around his home in a parliamentary kind of way by the ‘voters,’ based on their decisions – Demokino shows how these ethical dilemmas of modern life suddenly become the core of our political participation. When the issue of life enters the political arena and modern politics becomes biopolitics the democratic decision reaches an impasse: in the political arena laws are being debated on issues that can actually tolerate no decisions and any kind of majority rule is problematic in itself, any political regulation a publicly legitimated act of violence. Demokino is a virtual parliament that clearly displays how politics comes before law. Law is just a utopic and redundant technical procedure to cover the political essence.

Partrich Auditorium
Wayne State Law School
471 W. Palmer St.
Detroit, Michigan
Tuesday, March 21, 2006 at 3:00 pm.

Silent Cell Network

Monday, May 30th, 2005

Strange and interesting doings by the Silent Cell Network.

A new twist on immortality

Sunday, October 12th, 2003

Quite wonderfully, the conceptual artist Jonathon Keats (great name) has copyrighted his brain, and now is selling futures contracts on his neurons (via Die, Puny Humans). Since copyright holds for 70 years after the death of the creator, Keats is offering the rights to use his neurons for any computational purpose the buyer may wish, during that extended period. You buy now, and cash in when Keats actually dies (which may not be for quite some time, as he is 32). (The actual text of the IPO is available here).
This is brilliant on so many levels. In terms of “intellectual property,” and the commodification of art and intellect; in terms of what personal identity might mean, after death; and in terms of the expectations of artificial intelligence research and interfacing neurons with silicon chips. Keats poses all these issues in a quite hilarious and provocative way (even though, or rather precisely because, Keats insists that he wants to be taken seriously).
Since it’s only $10 for a million neurons, I sent in a check, requesting neurons located in the artist’s anterior cingulate cortex

more on Shelly Jackson’s Skin

Wednesday, October 1st, 2003

I had a great email exchange with Kimberly McColl about Shelly Jackson’s Skin, which I blogged here previously. Kimberly and I have very different views of Jackson’s project, but our conversation about it clarified ideas on both sides. With Kimberly’s permission, I am posting here excerpts from our correspondence…

Colossal Colon

Thursday, July 10th, 2003

Today I visited the Colossal Colon. It’s a forty-foot long tunnel, representing a human colon; you can crawl through it, and see all the diseases to which the colon is subject, culminating in full-blown cancer. I had to go because I am hereditarily predisposed to be at a high risk for colon cancer; but mostly because of the sheer perversity of such an anal representation. And indeed, though the purpose of the exhibition is high-mindedly educational–to warn people of the medical risks, and urge them to get tested for colon polyps or cancer–it really best works as a bizarre piece of participatory installation art. Somehow I erased my photo of the entire thing, with me entering it at the upper (intestinal rather than anal) end; so instead I have put up a photo of the repulsive interior.

Chantal Michel

Saturday, May 3rd, 2003

Here, in Graz, as part of the Masochism conference/festivl, a performance by Chantal Michel. She’s on a thin ledge outside the building, one story up, wearing only a white nightgown. Her hair hangs over her face, which therefore we cannot see. (Can she see us?). She is nearly motionless, at most there are slight movements over her arms. She must be cold, she must be in a position that is hard to keep stable–as I write this she’s been up there for more than an hour. An incredible force of will, then, at the service of expressing an image of total vulnerability. She does nothing, just stands there–waiting for what? Will the police come and take her away? (They were called, but left). Will she come back inside of her own free will? Will she have to be forced and cajoled? She probably wouldn’t die from a one-story fall, but she certainly would be injured–if I didn’t know this was a performance, would I think someone was trying to commit suicide? We, in the street, cannot help relating in some way to her mute otherness, though we cannot actually reach it. She demonstrates for us the falsity of our positions, as people in the world, going about our ordinary business.