Thursday, November 8, 2012

Plan 9 From Walter Benjamin

Art as an expression of citizens within a capitalist society is commonly viewed as an outlet, like a vent, through which people can healthily subscribe to variation from the system. Particular artistic endeavors serve to assist those with aspirations to live in a manner that is uncommon amongst average careers (desk jobs, customer service, etc), and yet still helps one to accumulate some form of finances to survive in our society. Art as a form of this kind of health has come to be seen as customary, and as such, acceptable within everyday practices of capitalism. Given this, the average reaction is simply to accept matters as such, and to view art as one career amongst many. Is it not problematic to take the side of the demon as opposed to attempting to thwart the monster's endeavors? The imposed necessity for finance and property accumulation can serve as a restriction on those types of expression that may not be useful for financial gain, but regardless are honest as to the feeling of the citizen. Art has taken many forms over the course of its existence through various types of cultures, and one of its most prominent features has been the assistance of ritual, and traditional foundation. This paper will discuss the dilemma Benjamin views our artistic careers as, and will include his criticism of art's origin in ritual. From this discussion I will offer a glance at the directing style of Ed Wood, as challenge to capitalist systematization as it has been proposed here.
The examination of our predicament will focus on Benjamin's text, “The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, the start of which includes a proposition of a certain theses of art:

However, theses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present [capitalist] conditions of production. Their dialectic is no less noticeable in the superstructure than in the economy. It would therefore be wrong to underestimate the value of such theses as a weapon. They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.

Rather than for the artist to cooperate with our capitalist system, that Benjamin identifies as Fascist, such practices are proposed as being a possible weapon against the system. Thinking in terms of what it would be like for art to exist in a society in which the proletariat has prevailed does not assist our current condition. Benjamin wishes to build on a style of art that challenges any kind of rational participation in financial gain to the extent that one's practices seem to jeopardize one's chances at success. At first glance, some may be troubled by such notions. Current artists might even take offense at such criticism that any sort of participation in financial gain affiliates one with Fascism. As stated above, artistic enterprises are often viewed as a type of variation from systematization. This doesn't seem to be the case for Benjamin in that such practices do not succeed, or in some cases do not even attempt to disrupt the system, but instead seek compromise. Another aspect that may seem troubling is what is proposed as “brushing aside” ideas like creativity, genius, eternal value, qualities often seen as essential to art and its practitioners.

The customary foundations of art are placed on the chopping block as Benjamin seeks to cut away from attributes that are usually viewed as essential for artistic practices. Seeing as current art participates in financial gain, which indicates one's allegiance to the system, one cannot hope to sabotage fascism through current practices. The system is only fed by our desire for financial security, and that desire is driven by success. There can be only specific ways in which one can be successful in our modern age, and thus the face of art is determined by financial desires. The finished product of one's work has to have a certain appearance that is assisted by specific aspects of personality: creativity and genius are two. As he states, Benjamin also thinks that the product itself must harbor particular attributes to acquire success: eternal value and mystery to name a few, but these are key in that they signal to audiences the special quality that the product has is the result of unique personal attributes. Access, by audiences, to art is thus limited to those with such attributes. This is not to deny that anyone can be audience to such works, but the understanding of them as art is for the unique few who then offer authoritative commentary over any given interpretation. Traditional thought concerning the given properties and personal attributes are more a weapon against the masses rather than being marks of accomplishment by a society for they indicate a dichotomy between certain people in which one set is elite, in that they are successful, and the other is lacking in some degree. An art project that is seen as qualitatively poor by society cannot be an example of success, so it's thought that its creator cannot be an instance of genius. Society is driven to this judgment by a history that has put the dichotomy in place, but how is it that it acquired so much force in the first place? As Benjamin examines the history of art within ritual, he paints a picture in which the creatively plentiful elite are placed in a position to command while the lacking masses are subject to obey.

The interpretation of history that is offered is saturated by Benjamin's notion of “aura”. His analysis of the aura is rather vague, but what can be gathered is that the aura of an art object consists of its being situated within its particular time and space of origin. One way he helps us to understand is to consider newer practices of mechanical reproduction due to advances in technology. Photography is one he places great emphasis on, and with the development of the camera, one is able to sneak a picture of what some culture may consider a sacred object. An example would be to consider statues of the virgin Mary, and how they are covered in order to maintain that only those with the proper sight, which can be translated as the proper “understanding”, are permitted to see them. This sort of treatment assists in embedding certain objects into the framework of ritual, as the objects are taken to be sacred and available to only a select few. With the advent of the camera, however, one can capture the image of an object, and take it home to treat as eye candy regardless of whether such a person has the unique attributes that grant access. While the photograph, as an instance of reproduction, may grant one sight in one's own home, it fails to capture the aura in that what cannot be reproduced is the object's unique existence within a certain time and space. It's in this way that Benjamin notes that instances of reproduction always depreciate an object's “historical testimony”.

The primary way in which we are assisted to grasp the idea of the aura is to consider it as that which is lost in the process of mechanical reproduction. While tradition may see this as a bad thing, Benjamin will ultimately come to say “good riddance!”. The aura does not travel with the image produced by a camera because a crucial aspect to the aura is that it is marked by distance. More will be said about this when we return to the idea of “eternal value and mystery” as necessary properties of an art object, but for now consider mechanical reproduction as a technique to bring closer what was once distant. With the example of hanging the photograph in the room, this is an attempt to erase the gap between a sacred object and the public, but reproduction depreciates an object's aura in that it cannot capture its historical testimony. We can think of this testimony as the object's use in ritual within the time and place it was initially created. An object's use within ritual grants it authority: only that object will do, and it must be used and thought about in a certain way; it is also a beacon for particular values that participants seek to embody and teach. Its authority is maintained by its authenticity, which holds so long as the object is accessible by a select few who use the object to conduct rituals. Any attempt at reproducing the object outside of the context of ritual diminishes its authenticity, which in turn injures its authority. This last idea is crucial to Benjamin's critique in that this is exactly what we want to do.

The process and structure of isolating a unique factor of an art object from the public has helped to develop people into a systematization that pushes them into subjecting themselves to the authority of those who claim to have access to the authenticity of the art object. This is the tradition of expertise and knowledge that Benjamin identifies with fascism. Glancing back out our initial examination of creative personal attributes, affiliating genius with artistic practices assists in instigating the notion to any onlooker to a work of art that she only wishes she can do that. If we were to question the onlooker as to why her participation is dubious, the response would most likely appeal to standards of success. We can identify those properties that an object must have in order to maintain success as the ones listed before: eternal value and mystery. These are both key aspects of the aura that is meant to imply distance. Regarding natural objects, while we may be able to see a mountain range, we are unable to grasp or fully harness it. What slips through our fingers is the aura. Seeing as the aura is something that does not give itself over to reproduction, its existence can be thought of as eternal in that while the reproduced object decays in time, the aura is something that does not travel with it. As it concerns an object's mystery, this is to return more to the personal attributes in that not everyone can fully access the object given that its authenticity is aligned with its distance. Similar to ritual, only those with certain expertise can understand an object as being a work of art, for everyone else the matter is an unsolvable riddle. As long as art remains the best kept secret of those with the understanding, the onlooking public will always be held captive by the authoritative relationship between genius and mystery.
Returning to our example of the onlooker, we can imagine she makes an attempt at art, but very few, if any, appreciate the work. Furthermore, we can suppose the attention it receives is one of disdain. The onlooker's doubts are confirmed: lack of success is clearly an indication that she is not a creative genius, and the gap between her and the authenticity of art works is wider than she previously imagined. Her old attitude is amplified, she now leaves art to the “experts”, the evidence of their status being held tightly in their wallets. The onlooker succumbs to the system by acknowledging that the evidence is didactic. Genius and mystery aid in systematization by substantiating, or representing, certain values that the onlooker is necessarily inclined to submit to. Even though the minute details of ritual may not be as common as they used to be, the same exploitation of mystery is still expressed through the arbitrary allegiance between authority and success.

Film and photography may not be the first instances of new technology making reproduction of art works more common, but they are huge steps toward possibly shattering the authoritative foundations of aura and financial success. For values in ritual to manifest there must be an autonomy between the art object and the cult figures. This is similar to the autonomy maintained by the successful in regards to accumulated wealth and creativity. Benjamin expresses great faith in film's ability to disrupt such autonomy by its ability to shatter the distance, and show that an arbitrary organizing of fragments is what's at work. There is no doubt that contemporary works of cinema are thought of in terms of success and failure, and that film can also assist capitalist structures, but Benjamin believes that it is in a better position than other art mediums to exhibit weakness in the autonomous structure between the elite few and art. In this sense art has political purpose and acquires the capacity to have social significance. Art as it pertains to its place in ritual has significance more for the isolated elite in that their access is direct and managerial: it is prepared for the public so as to better express systemic values.

The production of film involves the arbitrary piecing together of recorded fragments that are the visual reproductions of particular environments and actors. The final product is a constantly changing array of images that prevents audiences from perceiving any type of aura. Instead, audiences are placed into the position of developing a critical attitude. The goal of reproduction is to eradicate the distance factor, bridging the gap between different aspects of reality, such as our case of the photograph brought home, and when it does not seem to do so a critical attitude takes shape, and the public becomes more aware of the fragmented plight we are in. Simply put, in our capitalist system, it is those arts that fail, that are not marketable, that serve a political purpose. In the practice of cinema, I find no better example than Ed Wood. Pop culture regards Wood as the worst movie director of all time. His magnum opus, Plan 9 From Outer Space, is viewed as one of the worst movies ever made. The elite attitude considers his work to be vacant of any of the necessary properties of success, and thus Wood cannot be consider a genius in any way. Certain films are considered successful, and because of which these features obtain an authority that enables a judgmental juxtaposition to take place. However, what failure pieces do is help indicate that successful works are involved in the same kind of reproduction that failures are. The only manner in which failures differ from successes is that the latter is profitable. Otherwise, all films are involved in optical testing: audiences are brought “closer” to the environments and actors through the fragmented recordings of the camera.

Both actors and environments lose any sort of authority in front of the camera. These notions of aura and authority attempt to support that the artist is creative and exhibits genius because the product has qualities of eternal value and mystery. Film is not the only reproductive technology, but it does well to indicate that geniuses are involved in reproduction like anyone else. Oscar winning films are essential in supporting the authoritative foundations that genius and mystery purport. Failed works, like Wood's, have the potential to pull away the curtain and show that the distinction between “author and audience” is not so clear. Wood's films incorporate tons of stock footage from unrelated films, single-take shots, poor lighting, crude sound recording, cheap sets, and actors whose skill is definitely in question. Each of these aspects is more than obvious to any eye, elite or not, and yet the product is a feature film. Any audience member is able to see that something is amiss as the different pieces of the filming process are glued together in way that indicates that a piecing-together process is at work.

The photograph and other forms of reproduction may be able to better fool those who obtain such works that they are in touch with unique authoritative content. A failure film strips any objects that are being filmed from having any authoritative power. The actor is separated from the audience, and is unable to adjust to the mood of the crowd, as one might on stage. An adjustment seeks to stabilize authority, and does so by accommodating to the mood of the audience. The audience is unable to perceive that something is amiss amongst the authoritative figures as their so-called genius is really a kind of “playing to the crowd”. A similarity can be drawn between the stage actor and the cult figure within ritual, as the latter is more able to bestow values to a crowd if the figure's genius eludes all doubt. Before the camera, the actor, and everyone involved, has no idea how the audience will react, and if the temperament of the people is not accommodated to, then critical emotions may arise. The film attains social significance in that the public comes to be distracted by the critical attitude and starts to apply it towards their living environment. Our cities are filled with streets, buildings, sidewalks, sign posts, all sorts of edifices that are meant to direct the movements of people so as to allow better participation within the system. The design of these different entities work very much like art in that they exhibit an authoritative power given that they come from the minds of geniuses. The average citizen is not qualified to put up a sign post, it requires someone with expertise that understands the framework of the city; expertise offers the position of telling others how to move. Wood was trying so hard to be one of these figures within the aesthetics of cinema, but his inability to glue fragments of filming together left visible gaping holes through which audiences are able to question authoritative foundations—the onlooker is now able to say to oneself, “I can do that!” Seeing as Wood was so emotionally inclined to organizing fragments in the manner we see in his films, what enables us to think that those experts are doing anything different? It's in this way that Benjamin feels that the divide between author and audience is blurred, and that anyone can take up instruments around them are start piecing together the fragments of our world together in any which way they please. An awareness of the arbitrary nature of the construction of cityscapes begins to stir as the public questions the genius of the art around them, as well as the success that tends to follow.

Wood's films failed to acquire any sort of financial success, and so his films were useless in establishing any authoritative foundation. His reproductive processes are viewed as nonsensical, such as in scenes in which characters are knocked over in a graveyard, taking down the plastic tombstones beside them. These kinds of blunders are shocking for audiences in that they are used to being accommodated to: we all thought we were in the hands of experts! The disruption of comfort presented by Wood's features makes salient the discord between filmed fragments, and one begins to wonder “if a yahoo like Wood can gain access to cinematic processes of capturing and gluing visual fragments together then why can't I?” The political significance that comes about is the undermining of the artistic autonomy of genius and mystery. The language of aesthetic criticism, then, is nothing more than an appeal to marketability. Wood's films are bad insofar as they do not secure profits; genius and mystery are simply a way to keep intact the capitalist structure in which profits are the goal.

The critical eye that accumulates within audiences potentially aims itself at environmental structures and authoritative figures—if Wood is involved in arbitrary construction of elements, then perhaps everyone else is as well. The critical response towards art works helps the public in collecting courage to administer the questioning eye towards cult figures, and doubt is placed on whether or not such figures possess the genius that they claim to, or if the mystery of an art object is not just some ploy produced in the process of piecing together fragments of reality. It's clear that Wood is no authoritative figure, and if we interpret his works as being involved in similar processes of those we thought to be authoritative, then the authenticity of such figures and works is jeopardized and loses its value administering power over people.

Wood, by ironic consequence within the framework of capitalism, is a revelatory hero by passing authorship amongst the public. Art is not for the special few, but is for anyone who has the will to create. Mechanical reproduction cripples the soundness of the aura, but this is all for the better. Anyone who takes up a camera is an expert—the processes and motions of the elite few are made more available to the public in the advent of new technology. Similar to how reproductive processes devalue an object's authenticity by removing it from its historical testimony within ritual, the elite lose their grasp on authority the more removed their practices become from genius and the distance factor. As the quantity of experts increases in the wake of mechanical reproduction, the fight over quality starts to shift, and those works that stray away from aspirations of success are a crucial weapon against an oppressive system that demands of its public to excel in a way in which wealth determines value.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Schweitzer: Self-Devotion as Self-Abnegation

In his paper, “Reverence For Life”, Schweitzer presents several ideas concerning a particular type of disposition that he labels as an ethic. This disposition is unique in that it does not appeal to traditional discourses in logic, nor in any type of pragmatism. What we get is a set of ideas meant to depict a passion driven attitude that is also burdened by a self-imposed responsibility. Those who experience this passionate responsibility partake in, what Schweitzer calls, a “reverence for life”. This is complimented by a “will-to-live”, what makes the experience of such passion possible because it is the creative force behind it. Many see these notions as confounding and vague. Despite such popular ridicule, I do not intend to challenge Schweitzer's notions, rather I will seek to provide a bit of clarity on the matter, and I will defend his ideas against direct criticisms offered by Peter Singer.

I accept that my defense may not satisfy those who are logically disposed, but I do not intend to discredit Schweitzer's ideas by contorting them to fit into a system that he seemly opposed to some degree. Instead, I will present a defense that attempts at an honest depiction of what Schweitzer may have had in mind, and in doing so, a lingering sense of vagueness may remain for those seeking an argument that disambiguates matters to the degree that normative claims are in clear sight.

Two terms are key in Schweitzer's framework: the “will-to-live” and “reverence for life”. Both leave much to be desired in terms of clarity, so let's begin with the will-to-live. Schweitzer starts by focusing on his own human condition: he is a life, and that life wills to continue living. Afterward, there is an immediate move to extend the same analysis to all entities that seemly express the same will. This will consists of both a creative faculty as well as destructive. The former holds in the sense that one is disposed toward life in such a manner that new relationships are established between oneself and others that involve assistance in enabling the will-to-live of others to flourish. While the thought of such relations may be inspired by entities and phenomena external to oneself, the activity one engages in to substantiate such relationships is purely an inward struggle, and one cannot rely on external entities to initiate such a constructive force. The will-to-live is destructive in the sense that it is utterly individualistic, and in the struggle to express itself, it overpowers and nullifies other entities that are also trying to express a will-to-live. This is basically the survival aspect of the duality.

While the will-to-live is a motivating drive featuring what appears to be two opposing faculties, having a reverence for life is to view this opposition as an unfortunate enigma in which the destructive aspect is seemingly unavoidable and quite unfavorable. The latter is even more so the case given that the reverence interprets all those with a will-to-live as having equal value. One of Singer's criticisms is that Schweitzer's life itself is nonsensical in that he advocates a reverence for life while being involved in practices that both assist life and take it. Schweitzer is quite aware of this problem and Singer completely misses the point. The framework of the reverence for life is hardly logical, and thus seems problematic as an ethical disposition. The reverence is unique not so much in its nature, which it is, but more so in how uncommon it is. The far more popular notion is to involve oneself in affairs that are practical, and often survivalist. This is not completely problematic for Schweitzer, but becomes an issue when one's concern towards others conflicts with practical discourse.

Since such a disposition is to offer active care in regards to others on the grounds that they posses a will-to-live, such devotion must be made also in regards to oneself. In this sense, it is a kind of self-devotion that initiates an ethical concern toward others. The reverence for life views all with the will-to-live as beautiful and worthy of generous enterprise. Anyone who has such reverence is also in a state in which one views oneself as beautiful and worthy of generosity, and the latter is expressed in a way that answers to one's personal calling. Ethics, in Schweitzer's view, is thus a type of self-devotion that involves a reverence to life by acknowledging one's concerns regarding the will-to-live of others. Seeing as the reverence is a self-observing state, one cannot depend on the external world to provide the means to act accordingly, and instead one must rely on oneself to enact the creative faculty of the will-to-live. Given this, one is condemned to be aware of whether or not one is answering one's calling.

Self-devotion places one in an ethical state in that one is aware of sharing circumstances and aspirations with other entities, and that one has an enthusiastic drive to help others and must creatively act in order for it to reach out and engage with the world in a way that seeks to aid others and allows for the will-to-live of others to flourish. From this we get self-abnegation in that through the creative faculty, self-devotion answers the call of reverence by attempting to maneuver around the unfortunate enigma of the will-to-live, an attempt to evade it's own survivalist faculty. The paradox to this theory is that by attempting to stamp out the destructive faculty in oneself when possible, to aid in the capacity of expression of others silences any intention of interfering with their own inward struggle. To do otherwise would be to nullify the creative faculty of the other. Thus, Schweitzer's view is presenting readers with a type of existential challenge in which one asks oneself whether or not you're being honest with yourself in regards to how your thoughts and feelings are matching up with your actions. The reverence imposes on oneself, by oneself, a responsibility to attempt at a successful match up. Unethical conduct arises out of a negligence of self, either by slacking off in regards to personal commitments, or disregarding them completely.

In the case of animal testing, practitioners should not be able to partake in any comfort of success if the reverence is present in them. Scientists might be acting on a utilitarian principle in which the sacrifice of a few animals is at the benefit of many humans, but whether or not this practice is factually beneficial should not matter in the slightest to those with a reverence for life. Scientists who personally harbor the reverence and do not feel that this honors oneself, and in this way others, are involved in unethical conduct in that their personal expression is insincere. A deed's rational benefits make little difference against the self-imposed notion that one has negated one's creative faculties. The reverence looks to evade the unfortunate enigma, and does not seem to take solace in quantitative consequences of pleasure.

I think it obvious that Singer will consider the reverence impractical, and that personal commitments will not do the trick to provide the greatest amount of pleasure across the board. In “The Place of Nonhumans in Environmental Issues”, Singer makes several direct criticisms at Schweitzer. First off, he finds the position in which the reverence values all life equally as being unjustifiable. Why should the interests of a fly be on par with most other more conscious beings? Next, Singer questions the will-to-live, claiming that it is not possible for certain entities that have no conscious states to have such a will. Singer places great weight on consciousness, or some degree of self-awareness in regards to the conditions of life, as a requisite of a being to have interests, and as such to be included in normative considerations; not all beings will make the cut. For Singer, it does not matter what one's personal disposition may be in regards to what beings are worthy of generous treatment, it's more the case of whether a being meets an objective standard of consciousness to even be considered to have interests.

Another complaint is that Schweitzer provides us with no way to make normative comparisons between valued lives if one life has to go. For Singer, a utilitarian view can easily settle such dilemmas by being able to assess which life in question has more value attached to it by evaluating each in terms of conscious pleasure. If one seems to have more than the other, then the choice is clear. His final criticism was mentioned above concerning Schweitzer himself.

Firstly, Schweitzer does not seek to provide justification in the traditional sense. The equality of life that the reverence holds is not an objective claim that has evaluative properties, rather, it is a creative faculty of the will-to-live. If one interprets a fly as having value, then to discredit that belief on the grounds of popularly conceived notions of objective standards is to commit an unethical negligence. When Singer is confused as to how the fly's demise is regrettable, this is to say that it is not regrettable to him, but the same may not apply to oneself. If one experiences regret, then to deny or suppress it is to commit unethical conduct. As for denying the will-to-live to beings that lack consciousness, whether or not an entity posses a will-to-live or not does not depend on objective factors, but rather it is creatively the case if one interprets oneself and the other as possessing this passionate will. A further objection may be that this is horribly arbitrary, and may potentially restrict many entities from having a will-to-live if one does not stretch out the scope of their creative faculty enough. This is possible, and even seems unavoidable given the destructive faculty of the will, but the nature of the reverence consists of a responsibility to others that is immensely enthusiastic given that it is simultaneously a responsibility toward oneself. Schweitzer expresses a certain faith that an enthusiastic self will do all it can to extend itself to the aid of as many as possible.

The third objection is way off the mark from Schweitzer's notions in that Singer presents a situation as viewed from someone who is not enthused at all, but is “impartial”. The situation calls for one to choose between two entities in which one lives and the other dies. Both entities are in view of the reverence, so the choice comes down to two entities of equal worth. Singer makes this out to be an easy decision that is absent of any “theoretical difficulty”. All that need be done is weight-out which of the two possesses more value. For Schweitzer there need not be any theoretical difficulty, just personal difficulty. This is to return to the internal struggle concerning the opposing faculties of the will-to-live. What normatives are to arise out of such a regrettable situation? To think that one may calculate their way to a “cleaner” outcome is delusional in Schweitzer's framework: the reverence is always trying to dodge the unfortunate enigma. Saying there is no difficulty in choosing begs the question as to whether either of the two entities were thought to be of equal, or any, value in the first place.

Our conclusion consists of Singer's last attack. In his life, Schweitzer did aid many at the expense of other entities (germs, as Singer indicates). If germs make the scope of reverence, just as much as humans do, then this is a regrettable situation. In choosing humans over germs, he is not making explicit that one is more valuable than the other. Rather, a creative engagement with the world always makes some sort of impact, and not all will benefit from it. Utilitarian hands are no cleaner in that it admits of sacrifice. The differentiation that Schweitzer wishes to express is that quantitative justification does not grant any solace in affairs that involve creative aid and destructive consequences. For Schweitzer, justification is an external aspect of culture that one clings onto in order to suppress the angst of the inward struggle. As an onlooker, Singer is in no position to comment on anyone else's angst but his own. For anyone who considers oneself as having a reverence for life, no judgment concerning the expression of the will-to-live can come from without. All those who partake in such judgment exhibit the destructive faculty in the guise of “justification”. On a day-to-day basis one must ask oneself whether or not the call of passionate responsibility was answered or not.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Are There No Gods Among Insects?

A twenty minute train ride is what currently separates me from those who would have me hang for my unique brand of taste. I have never claimed to hold fast to a standard, for that would mean that I believe that what I like should dictate what others like, and although many of my antagonists speak of such things as "subjectivity" and "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", never has a group reacted so quickly as to make a man blind. It is one thing to be vociferous about one's taste, and the tastes of others, it is another thing entirely to impose restriction, to administer punishment. What I am speaking of is my place of work, an environment that rests in the shadow of high school so well that it is completely indiscernible from it. My clocking in might as well be the first bell ushering me into class, and while my work may be absent of lessons and homework, the immature stink of childish ridicule and glorified bullying permeates through the air like a fog that blinds any of the herd residing comfortably within from seeing one's true nature: that one is actually other, and that "I think" is really "they think". No one voice stands out, but simply comes in a chorus led by a ghostly instructor who leads mass with notes made salient by history. How does one swim in waters dictated by piranhas? Perhaps that answer is simple: one dances.

What response is so great as to overcome the herd? No response at all, for to respond to the actions of the they is to be both ruled by them, and pulled into petty attempts to rule. For while I may be offered hate, I offer nothing in return, because the gift of hate can only be wrapped back up and returned: the herd play teeter-tooter, eagerly awaiting for the other to push. Let silence rest between those who have nothing to offer each other, extending the gap so as to better enable one to become one's own master. For where one cannot love, pass on. And may the critic been seen as one who offers up a fairy tale, like Seuss, and the Brothers Grimm before him. Let the critic be one who spins webs with words, who indicates passionate engagement to the children gathered around the fireside. Let not the critic's story be taken as truth, but instead another story amongst stories; what enemy of fiction takes the word as reality? There are no Christian artists.

When the they is intimidated by the story of another, this is interpreted as an act of war, the most potent method to redeem the man in humanity. This is a certain kind of sickness, orchestrated by that ghostly instructor whose utterances carry the sound of history, and all the they can do is sing by reiteration, a practice saturated by utility and bad faith. The employee herd seeks to hammer any protruding nails by offering up great ridicule against the critic. May they know truth by agreement, and shout down one who might not like what everyone else likes. All poetry aside, an absurd proposition, my place of work is high school all over again in which I am punished for difference, made to suffer because of criticism, labeled as "negative", an act, ironically enough, that negates me. Let me not be a mystery to anyone, oh no, for the they is still caught up in stories of monsters in the shadows; no longer stories as all! They much rather have me brought into the light of truth, where all are objects, such as a dart board, and labels, like darts, stick; every hit is a bulls-eye. This light of truth that the they bathes in, can only have that which does not change as its object, and while it is persons who change, the they stamps out any alterations that may occur in time by its labeling, and in doing so, the person is stamped out as well. And while I may pronounce "love is a myth", all those who would claim to disagree come to agree by action. How could I speak such things amongst a group that shouts dirty jokes, and childish puns? What right have I to speak in a hue so very opposed to the gray disposition of diaper laden mortals? Speak the same or speak not at all; is this what it is to be nice? All one need say is that "dubstep is not music", and instantly the insults fly, as though a proposition had jumped out from the bushes posing as truth. Again with this talk of truth, such a spiteful disease it is for it makes most resentment justified. So long as one has one's eye on the truth, as if there existed such a thing, then one is able to administer its brother on people: "you are false my good sir!"

Truth's dagger has always been "False!", made to do its dirty work so as to allow for the trumpeters of victory to have air. My coworkers are stab-happy! Can any amount of armor save me? Can one pass by quickly enough? Tomorrow I will find out, and not only tomorrow, but the day after that, and so on: one must imagine Nemo happy. "Dubstep is not music you say, yes, say?! Let me sharpen my knife! Let no one speak against me indirectly (if at all)! Yes, beauty is subjective, but insofar as it does not disagree!" I will not lie, the music of others I usually meet with distaste, but would I forbid them to listen? No. I am no one's master, and I do not seek to drop blood in the water. I am merely a storyteller, doing my best to dance. How to deal with children? Let them cry to themselves. And if they should whip out their blades, what then? Quickly pass by, for as it was the fate of Lestat, do not drink the blood of the dead, for death will bring it down with you. Speak not to the infants, for what words can ever hope to penetrate the fortress of They?

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Digital War On Mystery

I've recently been met by resentment from those who are upset that I do no engage enough on FB. This anger is fed by my choice to contact them by other means, such as phone or email, or god forbid, face-to-face contact. I will not deny that I have been hesitant to contact anyone by any means as of late due to personal issues, although attempts have been made. To return to this resentment, those individuals who are angered by those who quit FB, yet still want to keep in touch, are a funny sort. This kind of regulation, to keep people in touch, yet at great distance, is of the most cowardly prose. What is FB if not a way to keep in touch with the world from one's own cave? Better yet, FB works like a bomb shelter: while the explosiveness of "being-in-the-world" occurs, FB offers the perfect table to hide under. What we get instead are tidbits of noted activity, factoids that serve to feed the mind's eye as to what existence is "really" like. What elitist tenacity it is for one to leave the shelter--don't you know you'll die out there?! The post serves as good as any indication of the true nature of the world. Such a sentiment is not one I argue with, as it does no good to argue with the Jehovah's Witness as he knocks at your door, questioning why you do not join the divine party.

What I think troubles those who are upset by those who leave FB is similar to how a group of alcoholics are irritated by one in their group who decides to stop drinking. Much like how an ignorant addict might confuse alcohol as an elixir to greener pastures, the FB addict is lured by a queue of posts that offer what appears to be information on the workings of the lives of others. In the past I have asked whether or not anyone can discern the difference between chatting, if we can call it that, with someone on FB and chatting with program ELIZA. I have yet to hear any reply to amount to anything more than to the simpleness of ELIZA's discourse, but this is more an appeal to faith than to reason.

Why leave FB? If anything to embody the thought that there is more to engaging people than typing on a keypad, seated in isolation, staring at a computer screen; whatever happened to the beauty of the other's eyes? Where has the music of the voice gone? Have we all been transferred into digital bits? Some of us have willingly had our image resolution set. However, there are still some of us who thrive off of ambiguity, who are excited at the thought of escaping solidification. A luxurious feature to the digital image is that it allows one's feet to be glued to the ground on the spot--there is no fear in taking a step and thereby changing one's shape; how can I know myself if I'm constantly moving?! Hungry for control of our shape, we contemplate and use whatever intellectual means to decide what people see and read on us--let us be rid of confusion and to finally meet each other as creatures understood! While we're at it, let's take two chairs and throw them together--two objects understood! The digital image is to make oneself into an object, something that is meant to be known in a certain fashion given the culture it's contained in. What chair has passions, endeavors, intuitions? If the one I'm sitting on now does, it sure as hell is a repressed entity!

The resentment that this article at first made mention of is one against ambiguity and mystery. We like to have others figured out, especially those we claim as friends. This type of discourse is no different than one who plants a flag and claims the spot of the land. FB has become an ideal weapon of power over each other, to command and conquer. This is not to say that it does not serve other purposes, as it seemed quite useful during much the Occupy movements, and it has its uses of informing others of events, though it remains troubling that FB participants feel it enough to view the event rather than attend it. What should be kept in sight is that FB is an instrument of power over one another, or at least an attempt of which. We administer control over our images and think that this serves as presence in the world, very similar to the man who claims to be a runner and yet does not run. As for the fate of everyone else, the image of others provides us with an understanding, the funniest kind, one you find in a mad house in which the patients run the show. The FB user is then upset by those who abandon the image and wander into the shadows. What kind of human would want to evade the radar of understanding? What kind of elitist would want to be something other than like a chair? I know not how to speak of such a person, except my means of personal interpretation, and it is futile to offer up what others can not see. When these shadow-dwellers seek to engage the FB user outside the shelter, amidst the explosions, this seems to be a futile gesture: to ask the rational soul and the dark figure to meet.

It is care the draws one to something, as such it is care the draws us together. When the FB user is irritated that those who lurk in the shadows seek to make contact by means other than through FB, the user fails to see care. This is not to say that the user does not exhibit care, or is not capable of care. Instead, the user is simply not capable of exhibiting care through FB, specifically in the area of friendship, as the user is led to believe by the post/comment structure of FB. While there is nothing sinister in participating on FB, my disposition is to advise against being deceived by it, and an indication of this is to bear resentment against those who evade such a digital landscape. The shadow-dweller is one who is not content with the rigid encasement of the digital image. She is tired of the dry stare caused by the computer screen. She much rather see the light in your eyes and hear the song the escapes from your lips. Her fingertips are hard from smashing against the letter coded plastic, and seeks to soften her touch by the skin of your hands. She wants you to join her in the darkness. What, are you afraid of mystery? Is your ass too well worn that your feet have not the stamina to dance in the abyss?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Judith Butler: "Critically Queer"

Below is a link to the Butler piece which I based "Performative Slurs" on. The Nietzsche papers I will provide later, but each of which provide and interesting perspective on the role that language plays in day to day acts, and how without out it we wouldn't have a world in which we inhabit. An accurate synopsis of Butler's article is offered by wikipedia:

Butler characterizes gender as the effect of reiterated acting, one that produces the effect of a static or normal gender while obscuring the contradiction and instability of any single person's gender act. This effect produces what we can consider to be 'true gender', a narrative that is sustained by "the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them."[1] The performative acts which Butler is discussing she names to be performative and within the larger social, unseen world, they exist within performativity.

On Butler's hypothesis, the socially constructed aspect of gender performativity is perhaps most obvious in drag performance, which offers a rudimentary understanding of gender binaries in its emphasis on gender performance. Butler understands drag cannot be regarded as an example of subjective or singular identity, where "there is a ‘one’ who is prior to gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender decides with deliberation which gender it will be today".[2] Subsequently, drag should not be considered the honest expression of its performer’s intent. Rather, Butler suggests that what is performed "can only be understood through reference to what is barred from the signifier within the domain of corporeal legibility". [3]

  1. ^ Butler, Judith (1999) [1990]. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Subversive bodily acts, IV Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions). New York: Routledge. p. 179.
  2. ^ Butler, Judith (1993). "Critically Queer". GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1 (1): 21.
  3. ^ Butler, Judith. Critically Queer. pp. 24.

Critically Queer

Monday, May 21, 2012

Performative Slurs: The Cruel Binding Power Of Language

A priest that pronounces a couple “husband and wife” can be said to be involved in two activities: the simple uttering of words, and actually binding two people into marriage. If the best man were to shove the priest aside and utter the same words, he is considered to be involved only with the simple uttering of words, but not the marrying of the bride and groom. What is it that gives the priest's words binding power? There are various instances of social convention in which words have binding power, and as Judith Butler notes,1 certain utterances bind a person to shame. I will present an analysis of Butler's view, and I'll attempt to show that while she offers a good theory of how certain utterances by authoritative figures acquire binding power, there is little explanation as to how non-authoritative citizens seem to execute the same kind of binding power as it pertains to slurs and derogatory remarks. Examining Butler's position will help to establish the authoritative aspect of performative utterances, and I will turn to Nietzsche to provide a hypothesis of how non-authoritative citizens also exhibit binding power.
Performative Speech Acts
Austin defines performatives as those utterances that when stated one is not describing what one is doing, nor is one simply stating what one is doing, rather, one is performing said action; it is to do it.2 When a priest states “I pronounce you...”, the utterance is neither a description, nor is it stating what it is the priest is doing, but the given phrase is to bind a couple in marriage. The success of a performative act depends on whether the act proceeds under certain circumstances: there must exist an accepted conventional procedure (certain persons uttering certain words in a certain context), the given procedure is executed correctly and completely, and the appropriate thoughts and feelings must accompany the act as well as the appropriate subsequent behavior.
Citation Of the Law
Butler is not adhering to all of the circumstances of performativity as she does not seem to express concern of whether the appropriate thoughts and feelings accompany a performative act for it to be successful. On the contrary, she seeks to dispense with the notion that a subject is what construes the power of performativity. This is not to say that thoughts and feelings aren't involved, but that a performative does not achieve success through a self-contemplative process in which a judge, for example, considers the situation, and by an instance of will, pronounces someone to be guilty or innocent: it is not a subject that establishes that a judge's words confer a sentence onto a guilty party. Austin's first condition states that there must exist an accepted conventional procedure for a performative to work, and in the case of a judge's sentence, Butler thinks that what the judge utters has binding power only if the judge cites the law. In addition to this, it must be the case that prior to the current trial, there must be a conventional legacy by which current “activity” emerges in the context of a chain of binding conventions: a trial cannot proceed in its contemporary fashion unless trials have successfully proceeded as such in the past, and the current trial mimics, or reiterates former trials.
We'll return to the idea of dispensing with the subject later. Sticking with citation, particular statements a judge utters acquire a binding force from previous discourse in the practices of law where other such successful performative acts were performed. Citing serves as an invocation of convention—a discursive practice that appeals to prior authoritative sets of practices, to a conventional legacy. If not for these prior, particular, law oriented linguistic activities concerning matters of authority and lawful citizenship, then a judge would be in no position for his utterances to have any binding power over the affairs of people in court.
Given that certain performatives have been repeated by certain persons on numerous occasions in the past, they have accumulated a force of authority and normativity over time. Whether it be the verdict of a judge, or the vows in marriage, either, as a performative act, gets its force due to an appeal to prior exercises that have been repeated on numerous occasions. Seeing as the best man in a wedding has not been the one to utter vows in the past, his butting in seems uncanny, and no one takes him seriously. Another of Austin's conditions of success is that the appropriate subsequent behavior compliments the performative. It is the string of successful performatives over time that constitutes conventional legacy; the best man has had no such success in the past, so he is condemned to being a bored spectator rather than the one doing the binding.
Femininity Is Not a Choice
Remaining with the wedding example, the best man cannot will it that his utterances having binding power because there is no historical force to support him, due to which his attempt will not be followed by the appropriate subsequent behavior. Instead, he will become the victim of ridicule for disrupting the ceremony. There are ways to fail in the face of conventional legacy, acts that are thought to disrupt, or not coincide with, the chain. In the case of the marriage ceremony, Butler thinks that the performative nature of the ceremony to bind two people together also establishes that the performatives involved succeed only if the players are of a particular sort. A priest cannot marry anyone, it must be the case that it be a bride and groom. Butler explains how this sense of performative success regarding marriage ceremonies also establishes taboo activity, acts that do not meet the conditions of performative success. In this instance it's the sex of the two persons to be wed. The performative nature of the marriage ceremony, then, establishes a heterosexualization of social bonds between people.
The conventional legacy of heterosexual marriage establishes a shaming taboo that “queers” all those who contradict the convention. “Queer”, then, serves as an insult, and similar to how a judge or priest cites prior authoritative practices in order for their utterances to have binding force, the insulting nature of “queer” gets its performative force by referencing historical operation: how it has been used to indicate contradiction to convention in the past. A part of the conventionality of the marriage ceremony is that it harmonizes two people in such a way that it produces jubilant feelings amongst attendees. Anyone who is seen as disruptive to such conventionality is outcast and ridiculed, and thus “queering” has developed as an instance of shame.
In a certain sense, one can infer that the past determines the future, and that all present conduct is the result of conventional legacy. There are those who oppose such an inference, and believe that one can create oneself in the moment, free from history and surpassing convention. Language, by this standard, appeals to a “will” or “choice”, and does not constitute a history of discourse. Sartre is a proponent of such a notion, and in his existentialism asserts that “existence precedes essence,” from which we are meant to understand that one creates who one is in each moment of one's life by means of choice.3 Sartre thought that if there is one truth to man it is that he is a conscience subject capable of overcoming history by conscientiously considering alternative actions. Butler believes this to be erroneous in that identity categories do not surpass historical discourse. There is no term, or statement, that can function performatively without a preceding historical force—no binding can occur without there being past instances for one to cite. In order to identify as some gender, that is, to be able to be bound to what one utters, there has to have been instances in the past where doing so bound others to respective identities.
Identity terms such as “I”, work in the same way, the successful use of which are predicated on a history of discourse. “I” is preceded by discourse—language has to have been designed in such a manner that allows for talk of subjectivity. It is in this sense that gender roles, such a femininity, are not a choice as Sartre conceives them to be. Instead, a history of discourse comes to form the subject. In the present day, “queer” has taken a more positive tone of performativity, one less confined to shame. However, Butler argues that one is mistaken in holding the idea that one identities as “queer” in an “out of the blue” fashion. It is because “queer” has existed as a mark of conventional contradiction that one is able to take it up at all—even in aiming to change the meaning of a term, one does so by reiterating the conventional use of it.
Our examples have been instances of authority executing performatives. How is it that those who are non-authoritative are able to cite for the sake of binding force? This question can be held to any and all instances in which the common person means to commit successful performatives. Is this to say that the common citizen is unable to self-identity if an authority figure is not present to bind one to a gender personality? Butler does not offer much in answer to these questions, and given “queer” seems to have been shamefully bound to particular individuals over time that we now look to challenge it today, it might assist us by having some sense of how performative success occurs in non-authoritative social circles.
Nietzsche: the Creditor/Debtor Relationship
I will focus primarily on the second essay of Genealogy Of Morals, in which Nietzsche discusses how it is we come to bind people to shame and punishment. Nietzsche's account does not depend on whether a person is authoritative or not, rather, his view offers the idea that the more distant one is from authority in the social chain of command, the more binding one's utterances become.
Nietzsche's theory refers to a certain type of relationship between creditor and debtor in which the memory of one's debts to another is what binds one to the performative utterances of others. In this relationship, an individual, or a group, confers something to another, and the latter fails to fulfill on what is conferred. Nietzsche also dispenses with the subject, and thinks that each of us is born into, and subjected to, a world that has started without us. A conventional legacy is already in place in that the language of the legacy immediately administers performatives onto a newborn: a “doctor” in a “hospital” utters one's “sex”—each of the elements in the equation successfully emerge through language in being a reiteration of how, by whom, and where similar activity has occurred in the past. As Butler points out, a doctor pronounces “It's a girl!” and from that point forward one is committed to “girling”, much like how a criminal is sentenced to jail by a judge, and how one is committed to “queering” if one deviates from normative social bond; the doctor's utterance is successfully performative. Due to the vulnerability of youth, one grows up absorbing the language of what constitutes “girling”, as well as “queering”, that latter being an indication of punishment should one deviate from the former. Any measure one takes against “girling” will be in the language of “girling”, as discussed above, as will any talk of subjectivity depend on the language of which being designed prior to such deliberation.
Given that the initial utterance by the doctor commits one to “girling”, Nietzsche imposes that this aligns one with particular promises pertaining to the conventional legacy—one has vowed to reiterate a particular discourse within society. Doing this allows for one to partake in all the advantages society can offer. In this manner Nietzsche thinks that the self has made itself calculable: one looks to the future by reiterating the past. Calculability is a human measure for ensuring knowledge about our fellow humans, and this is largely constitutive of creditor/debtor relations. Our memory of our initial vow, serves as a promise to others that there will be no surprises. In the case of a “no surprises” society, the advantages alluded to before emerge—change has been conquered, reason can flourish! Marriage ceremonies will continue to proceed as they always have, ensuring the jubilation mentioned before for all eternity. Those that impose calculability fulfill the creditor aspect of the relationship, and it's the promise of gender normativity that one owes to all participants of a conventional legacy: one agrees to be another link in the chain.
Nietzsche describes this relationship as being a “social straightjacket”, a set of fixed ideas that is conferred to serve as reminder of one's promises. Fixed ideas come in the shape of “memories”, in particular, those that refer to instances of punishment made upon those who broke their promises—pain serves as the great memory inducer. Similar to how one is bound to “queering” when disrupting the heterosexual social bond, one is entitled to cruelty if one does not continuously reiterate normative mannerisms pertaining to “girling”. The creditor/debtor marks the origin of punishment as the creditor feels obligated to invoke injury on those who fail to fulfill on their debts.
I hope it to be no mystery that each of us serves as a debtor in one way or another, or in every possible way (slave morality), but who exactly are these creditors? One simple answer may be that they are authority figures, for it is their words that have binding power, as convention has it. However, given the formality of the various trades each of these authorities are involved in, it is not often that we hear authorities pronouncing one to “queering”. The priest pronounces a couple to be married, and indirectly establishes homosexual taboos in that we react in a manner that predicates its success. What of when we are not directly in the presence of authorities? How is it we are adamantly inclined to performatives? Nietzsche thinks our inclination to uphold our promises is empowered by fixed ideas of punishment, and because our attachment to the promise is strong, one thinks of oneself as deserving of shame and cruelty if one opposes convention (a Nietzschian example would be a Christian flogging of oneself). The authority may not be directly present, but fixed memory allows one to privately echo performatives. This is how we develop “bad conscience”, an illness that causes one to turn against oneself—one becomes one's own menacing authority figure. Nietzsche considers this an illness because, returning to our example, one believes that it is still the doctor who is binding one to the commitments of “girling”, while it is really oneself, and it is successful! In this manner it is not only authority figures who utter successful performatives, but also those who are ill.
The above instance shows how one serves as creditor turned against oneself. Seeing as anyone can serve as a creditor, it should not be thought it is done always in bad conscience, but anyone can invoke the right of creditor upon others. For those of us with “good memory”, adhering to this social straightjacket comes without question, but Nietzsche thinks that instinct still draws one to power. Those with good memory who are non-authoritative are reduced to having to exhibit their instinct from within the confines of the straightjacket. This means that one still plays along with the game that performatives are what have binding force between people in society. However, non-authoritative citizens do not match up with the all the qualifications for a successful performatives, such as being a certain person in a certain place, but only seem to meet up with the appropriate thoughts and feelings accompanying the act and the appropriate subsequent behavior (the latter covered by bad conscience). Nietzsche feels this gives non-authoritative performatives more power in that one has to put in extra effort to “get the point across,” and rather than being able to invoke convention, one commits another to “queering” by vicious insults and physical force—one should be ashamed of not being calculable, especially when the rest of us are doing our best to be so! The more removed one is from authority, the more inclined one is to resort to cruelty in order to instantiate binding power, and this type of tactic has an unforgettable affect, a memory made salient by the terror inflicted to produce it. The cruel performatives of non-authorities cause one to be far more inclined to the promises made not to “queer”, or to continue “girling”.
The power of language to bind each other to particular values, and manners of living, will play to the fate of each of us. While authorities act by reiterating the law, riding the comfortable wave of “justification”, common folk follow at their heels and aspire to be in the “right of masters”, to partake in administrative binding and to get a sense of what it's like to have people to look down on. I made mention before of how in one way or another each of us is a debtor, but which of us are creditors? A criticism can be made against those who punish due to lack of hindsight about the true nature of their promises, but this requires a particular kind of discourse in which the criticism is turned against oneself: in what ways do I bind people to my words?

1Judith Butler, “Critically Queer,” GLQ: A Journal Of Lesbian and Gay Studies
2J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words (Harvard University Press, 1975), 13-16
3Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism”

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Artistic Intuition and the World Of Utility

In a society governed by capitalism, there is no room for any personal endeavor that does not yield to some sort of financial utility—it must make sense for one to participate in any enterprise. It is by no means a contemporary feature of convention that art also serves as a utility of survival, as artists have composed works for the sake of financial security for centuries. The term “artist” is one that should be brought to question, as contemporary society conceives of the status of which as a profession, a job, and like any job, one is more driven by economic demands than by passion. Is art just another item of utility, an object that one uses for personal gain on some level or another (for either artist or audiences)? Is the artist simply another professional seeking to scrape out a dollar? My intention is to explore Nietzsche's notion of artistic intuition, and how it conflicts with the popular conceptions of art. In the process, I will examine his idea of Apollonian, as well as Dionysian, values in art. From my analysis I hope to indicate a sense of artistry that eludes the language of utility, and support a type of creative expression that is not isolated in subjectivity and rational discourse.
What Do We Mean By “Art”?
The most I can offer concerning a general meaning of the term artist is simply a personal interpretation as I have come to know the term growing up, or a dictionary definition. I am sure that many people have various understandings of the term, but as it pertains to my endeavor of challenging the popular conception, some sense of “art” as such should be provided. As a child, whenever I engaged, or at least attempted, in activity that seemed somewhat fanciful to adults, I was called “artistic”, or “creative”. The two terms seemed to accompany each other so often that I came to equate the two, using them interchangeably. Let it be said then that my childhood definition is that an “artist” is a creative person. Nauseatingly vague, yes, but no less so than the definition acquired from a digital dictionary: a person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily subject to aesthetic criteria.1 So it is one who produces a particular type of object, and by object I mean anything available to any one of our senses. What is this object, and how does it qualify as art?
At this point I depart from usage of textbook definitions, and return to personal interpretations. Art is a certain kind of object in which we bear a particular relationship to, and we apply the term “art” to set it apart from those objects that do not meet the qualifying standards. It is often thought that art objects are those that are different from those Heidegger describes as “ready-to-hand”.2 These kinds of entities in the world are those we use by looking past them: when one operates a hammer, one does not theorize about it, nor does one take much notice of the hammer insofar as it is functioning properly in order to fulfill some end. Those objects that we do take notice of, but do not appear to be of any immediate use are “present-at-hand”. It's because we take notice of these objects that one is in a position to theorize about them. Art, it would seem, walks a fine line between the two types, as it an entity in the world available to the senses, and thus in a position to be theorized over. Also, art seems to serve as a utility for both creators and audiences in that it is argued that art assists in providing some sort of psychological end. Art may be cathartic for the artist, as well as pleasurable to audiences. It's this tightrope walk between both types of states that art is understood as being different from both present-at-hand, and ready-to-hand.
Walking a line between these two states is not unique, however, in that a hammer motions between both at various times over the course of its existence; I imagine that no one walks about with a hammer in hand all the time ready to smash in protruding nails. It's still unclear as to what makes something an art object as opposed to being simply ready-to-hand, or present-at-hand. Another argument in favor of differentiation may be that art is unique in being simultaneous both. I feel no need to enter into details here in that this suggestion is outright confusing given multiple simultaneous perspectives. While for one who uses a hammer, it is ready-to-hand, but for any onlooker who is not involved in the other's endeavor, it's present-at-hand.
It seems as though we are looking for a conception of art, an understanding that allows for one to cover all cases of possible experience. Nietzsche's analysis of this is favorably noted, by myself, in his example of “leaf”.3 At some point in the very distant past, some creature or another that was capable of uttering sounds in some fashion came across a leaf and uttered “leaf”. This experience, which was unique to this particular creature, becomes the experience for us all in that we take his single utterance as the conceptualization of anything we might come to experience in the world that resembles that single instance. Nietzsche thought this to be the construction of concepts, the “equation of the dissimilar”, in which the application of a term is believed to cover the essence of an experience in all possible cases. Reaching an understanding of “art” appears to be making the same appeal in that we wish for the term to symbolize a concept that is the universal understanding for any given experience.
Returning to our conundrum of figuring out what quality, possessed by art, sets it apart from mundane, everyday objects, it does not do that any conclusion we might reach on the matter is ephemeral. In our current day and age it seems that if knowledge it to be reached, its object must be one that exists for all cases—our knowledge must be of something eternal and unchanging. If this were not the case, then of what use would knowledge be? Plato's “Divided Line” supplies us with a metaphysics that aligns knowledge with objects that surpass change and time, objects referred to as “The Forms”.4 Any type of disposition we may have regarding physical objects, things that change, switching between being ready-to-hand and present-at-hand (let's say), will be marked by belief or opinion. This type of disposition falls short of knowledge, and if the latter is to be accomplished, our sights must be set on objects that transcend the physical world. It should be noted that Plato placed art on the lowest of possible sections on his line, claiming that art is twice removed from truth, serving as a copy of a copy. While most of us are prone to agree with his idea of an object of knowledge, we are not commonly disposed to view art as being removed from truth. As such, there seems to be a desire to place art in the Forms, as something we can have knowledge of so as to set it apart from everyday objects, and to help us get ever closer to The Good. Reducing our epistemological relationship to art as one of opinion offers us no support on the matter.
Placing art in the Forms results in its conceptualization. As we tend to agree that art exists, and “art” is meant to signify a differentiation between objects so that there are things we would not phrase as such, art as a concept must function in a manner that transcends all experience in that it makes it possible for any one of us to understand any given experience, even those had by others. This understanding enables us to think that when a friend tells us “I went to look at some art,” that she did not go wandering about a hardware store. One may argue that our friend is a tool enthusiast, and from her perspective such hardware is art. A Platonic response may be that our friend is under the opinion that tools qualify as art, but for us we exhibit an understanding of concepts, and we are in a very good position to say that our friend is mistaken—those who exhibit understanding are in a far better place to speak of experience than one who is partaking in the experience.
Art As Utility
While there is still no exact understanding of what qualifies as art, we do have some sense of what we expect from an understanding of the concept of art. Although we are not eager to instantiate art as being ready-to-hand, our analysis so far seems to consistently align art with utility: that it is used to serve some rational end, or to fulfill a purpose. Perhaps art can be conceived as assisting us to understand Beauty, as it resides in the Forms, or to reach The Good. This is one such use, as I'm sure there are many that can be conceived. The point is not in establishing a proper use, rather that an understanding of art is commonly thought to coincide with utility. Other such possible uses of art have been alluded to: financial gain, and psychic health. Art seems to be predicated on economics, epistemology/metaphysics, and science.5
Economic stress is what I take to be the heaviest impression on artistic engagement. Survival is pressed upon us as one of the most demanding aspects of our nature, given that in high school it is endlessly emphasized that life cannot proceed without a job (parents tend to contribute to the same pressure). If this is the case, then any youth aspiring to be an artist will be thinking in terms of a professional living, one that provides financial security—one does art to the extent that there's money in it. Sometimes it may be the case that one passionately desires to make art, and it just so happens that there is a job market out there for such a passion. This type of person we will return to later, as the kind who is on the right track toward “creative acts”. For the time being we shall remain focused on those who are confined to reactivity. Nietzsche describes this state as one in which persons restrict themselves to acting in regards to, or in correspondence with, historical discourse. Reactivity, in a sense, is practical in that it allows for one to partake in all the advantages that society has to offer, and seeing as money is the particular advantage one acquires by the conduct under question, art is one's segue into the market place.
The scientific understanding of art can take many view points, depending on the exact study one is disposed to. The one in question here is a concern of psychological well-being. This tends to be complimented by observations regarding the disposition toward survival discussed above. If one confesses to having artistic ambitions, whether or not one seeks financial gain through them or not, the ability to exercise such ambition is not always readily available due to economic demands. Someone who wishes to practice dance may not always be able to if one must attend to work in order to have access to the market place. In this event, science may “observe” that artistic practices serve as cathartic expression—a manner in which to combat psychological repression. Art then serves the purpose of promoting better health by scientific standards. This too is understood as “practical”, and that it is “reasonable” for one to pursue art. The language of science and economics may both wonder: “If it were not the case, then why would one do it?”
The Intuitive Drive
Camus' idea of the absurd consists of the scenario in which the rational man meets the irrational world.6 The absurd is not something that is contained in the world, instead it is what emerges from our desire to become calculable, to have insight into all ends—we create absurdity. What of the irrational man? We have thus far discussed those of us who are led by the notion that all meaningful activity in art must be predicated by utility, a reasonable purpose. These insights constitute a good portion of Nietzsche's idea of Apollonian values in art. We'll return to this notion later, but prior to our current point, we made mention of a person who has a passion for art, and by chance, happens to find a market for his expression. We might ask, what if the market had not happened to be in the artist's favor? Would she have “turned back”, and resorted to bagging groceries at your local supermarket? This would make sense, would it not, to keep one's eye on the practical prize?
Like Camus, Nietzsche also establishes a conflict: when the rational man meets the intuitive man.7 While Camus' battle results in the absurd, Nietzsche's ends up with tragedy. This consequence will be elaborated on once we reach the Apollonian/Dionysian values, until then we should examine what Nietzsche means by the intuitions. In the same text where Nietzsche discusses the formation of concepts, he also talks about how the function of language is not to serve as a literal description of the world and events. Instead, language is metaphorical, enabling one to interpret one's experiences rather than describe them. It's in this way that our current conventions are merely someone else's art. In the case of “leaf” it was someone in the past who made such a noise at an experience, and this initially was a creative act. However, from then forward we have been in the position of copying someone else's act—we have been reactive to a language. We have also been reactive to an understanding of language, to its literal functioning as being able to make sense of the world. In this way our current reasonable discourse is a less an instance of subjective will, and more a matter of reiteration.
What is it then to be intuitive? This can be viewed as a simple antithesis of the rational man, but this isn't completely accurate. To be involved in the everyday play of metaphors is, in some sense, to be an everyday poet. The routine discourse is one that imprisons us in that we seek to implore word as a literal description of how things are. Looking back at our notions of art, the conceptualization of “art” is a means of solidifying our experiences in order to think that one single experience grants us access to the understanding—we express a drive to be calculable. Nietzsche does not think this “rational” drive is the only one we have, there is one that is still held to reiteration, and yet aspires to make new provinces of discourse. This sort of person is not disillusioned, she exists in the conceptual prison like anyone else does, and a history of concepts is what she has to work with. Rather than fit herself to the concepts as they are reiterated by others, she listens to her drive to actively engage concepts. Similar to how a lighthouse listens for the horn of a ship encased in heavy fog in the night, someone who hears the call of the intuitions puts up no resistance to the oncoming force. Think of a child given a puzzle to put together: the child did not create the pieces, they are simply what have been given to her. Adults look down at her and expect her to piece together a particular image, to follow the manner in which things have been conceived to fit together. The child's intuitive drive compels her to put things together in whatever manner she feels like. The end result is probably something that makes little sense to those who operate off of mere reiteration: when has a landscape been pieced together is such a way that a mountain stands upside-down?! Where is the sense in putting things together in a way so that the common man is confused?
Looking back at my childhood, when adults referred to me “artistic”, this is not because I was reacting to a historical discourse, rather, I was involved in senseless activity—it was of little concern to me what practical basis there was for putting the pieces together as they have fit before: I fancied the idea of coloring the sky purple, or making a mustache for myself by gluing macaroni noodles to my face. None of these features bore much utility, except under the eyes of the psychologist who diagnoses my irrationality as healthy, but the doctor is merely someone on the outside looking in—the party is a mystery unless you're in on it.
Apollonian/Dionysian Values
This outlook of conceptualization, and utility already provides us with some insight into the Apollonian sense of art. The alternate sense of art that Nietzsche highlights is the Dionysian.8 To each sense he assigns specific styles of art: sculpture, and perhaps painting, pertain to the Apollonian, while music and dance belong to the Dionysian. The point of the latter is that the art contained therein is “non-imagistic”, while the former seeks to produce imagery, or form, in one way or another. One may wonder what the point is of differentiating styles of art in this way, is this not also to conceptualize? I can imagine various interpretations of Nietzsche that may yield equally plausible responses. I tend to refer back to what was said about the intuitions, and how one is not disillusioned from conceptual imprisonment, but what this dichotomy seeks to establish is the manner in which we engage historical discourse. The child can either put the puzzle together in a way that makes sense, or she can make a different picture—it may not necessarily be new, but it does not adhere to the language of utility.
Each of the values pertain to a different type of involvement: the Apollonian deals in dreams, while the Dionysian engages by intoxication. This relationship is very much in resemblance of the rational man against the intuitions, as the Apollonian is very much like the rational man. The appeal to dreams is similar to how we resort to conceptualization, as dream, as conceived for our purposes, seeks to elude individual experiences. Our encounters with the physical realm is saturated with change and instability, a horrific landscape for the rational soul. Focusing on dreams is to turn our heads upward toward Mount Olympus, to the gods that transcend a world in flux. Here we find not only Forms, but form, as mathematical precision is also available to knowledge. Sculpture fits just fine here in that one endeavors to mimic things as they appear; the better a work resembles mathematical precision, or shapes, the more sensible it is in the eye of society. In this manner of art, we are disposed to what is intelligible, to entities that surpass change and position themselves in such a way so as to be available to the intellect. The Apollonian artist, then is one who partakes in images that spring with life eternal, a practice that places one apart from others. The language of subjective contemplation reigns as one considers oneself as tapping into something by means of a rational dialectic, searching for combinations of imagery that are useful for reaching Beauty—one must imagine the pieces of the puzzle fitting together so as to be perceived as Beautiful, for it is the beautiful work that succeeds in capitalistic landscape. This subjectivity is beyond individual experiences so as to avoid the horrific deceptions of opinion and belief, and this refuge from the terror of the world also separates one from other people—after all, “hell is other people.”9 It's in this way that the task of conceptualization is made easier in that we do not consider the imprisoning factor of our poetry.
Dionysus serves as the antagonizing brother to Apollo, the kin the latter wishes would not show up for holidays. Endeavors in Dionysian art are not imagistic, they are not concerned with producing a product that aligns itself with some concept. While music and dance were mentioned as being practices that emerge from Dionysian art, one may argue that each of these two styles lend themselves to both the present-at-hand, and ready-to-hand in that “music” and “dance” indicate a conceptualization, and both can be conceived as being involved in sensible enterprise. This kind of criticism, however, is still encased in the tradition of utility and the understanding, and so there is still much effort in framing all events and activities in a rational network of purposes and usefulness. The language of utility will not be able to comprehend Dionysian art without becoming queasy and fearful. Thinking back to our artist who just happens to find a market for her practice, this economic gain shares more with luck that with rational purpose, for the artist would have continued with her passions regardless if there was a market for her to take comfort in. “What nonsense,” exclaims the survivalist as well as the epistemologist, while the psychologist proclaims “it's still useful as it concerns one's health!” Such shouting touches a deaf ear to the artist who seeks not to react to historical discourse, but to be actively engaged in one's passions. Both of the reactions to the artist are in vain in that they are still predicated on the notion of sensible utility—each residing in the tongues of rational purpose as a means to The Good. Each disposition is housed in a place where the literal function of language is constitutive of concepts, and it's because of this that dream is even more enticing in that each is unaware that they are dreaming.
Even though Nietzsche places great emphasis on music, my bias as a dancer will be toward dance. My area of practice is in breakdance, an activity I find to be an exquisite example of intoxication. One of the unique features to this style of dance is that is has very few foundational moves, and being involved in it usually entails that one expresses great skills of improvisation. Because of this, rational onlooker are usually given a headache at the sight of the unpredictable movements, and someone spinning on their head—heads were made for thinking! Breakdance is still young in its age, and quite far from possessing any sort of professional stability, but this does not prevent practitioners from partaking in it. Returning to the criticism mentioned above, is it not the case that even in dance one is orchestrating a product for audiences to conceptualize? Maybe so, if we're to remain in that sort of language, but the important feature to grasp in Dionysian art is its notion of intoxication. This mode of living is not like dreams, where in the latter one lives amongst images that appear to purport Beauty. Instead, a dancer is not one who is a spectator to art, a dancer is art. Being intoxicated is to be so infused with one's activities that the thoughts and language of product and utility fall flat in the dirt: one does not subjectively experience oneself as being a rational agent that molds things together so as to create a product, set apart from appearances and experiences. In Dionysian art one returns to the forefront of hell, and meets with other people again, becomes friends with flux and terror. In breakdance, with little foundation to play off of, the moves one exhibits are temporal, and one acquires great excitement at the notion that one's efforts are ephemeral, and financially futile (and for a good portion of the time physically hazardous). Convention emphasizes that it's a terrible thing for one to be conducting oneself in a manner that is insensible, to abandon all sense of future comfort, but after partaking in the ecstasy of dance, calculability appears to be nothing but a boring refuge. The Dionysian is not completely blind to Apollonian aspiration, as when the two meet, tragedy is what emerges: the intoxicated artist can no longer take the rational man seriously. Conceptualization and utility operate as a great cane to walk us through life, but if the daredevil intuitions call to us, if we feel driven to putting the pieces together in way that is shocking, even to the artist, this gives us a taste of creative activity: making new linguistic/symbolic provinces that do not match up with reiterated conduct. There is no sense of planning one's movements in breakdance, nor does the practice involve any logical discourse in providing a product for the sake of some benefit, one just hears and succumbs to the call of intuitions.
This analysis is not meant to be a judgment. For those who practice art, whatever this term might mean to one, I am not disputing that it can be a practice that one can simultaneous enjoy and have it be an economic resource. My position is simply to put ideas on the table for contemplation, or spite, if you will. If anything, I mean to take notice of the popular trend in our society that everything we do is done under the scope of utility, that passion is restricted to calculated planning—subjective discourses reigns supreme. To gain sight into an arena of discourse that is not limited to utility is difficult in that it will be done through concepts and the language of the original creature. I advocate that we don't lose sight of the child, the horn in the night, and that art can partake in practices that are both terrifying and temporary, and do so without restraint.
2Heidegger, Being and Time
3Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying In An Extra-Moral Sense”
4Plato, The Rebuplic
5I'm aware that psychology is arguably a science, but for the sake of this discussion I'm addressing psychic health as such seeing as certain scientific discourse asserts that artistic expression is psychologically beneficial as fact. Given this, it's argued that it's practical to pursue art because of its scientific benefits.
6Camus, The Myth Of Sisyphus
7Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying In An Extra-Moral Sense”
8Nietzsche, The Birth Of Tragedy
9Sartre, “No Exit”