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Art and power: the emancipatory potential of contemporary art

May 22, 2009 1 comment

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Reading Benjamin’s piece, ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ stirred some thoughts (more like questions) that I’m here articulating because I’m working through them and I welcome the insight of others.

Benjamin writes that all works of ‘authentic’ art are inseparable from the fabric of tradition and that these often served a ritualistic service. Isn’t reproduced/reproducible art also ritualistic? For example the works of Slovenia’s art collective, NSK, seems a self-aware representation of this. As Agamben puts it in one of his lectures on glory and power, “media distributes glory and spreads acclamation.” Acclamation is a form of prayer to power and spread in every aspect of modern life (perhaps because it is reproducible, rhizomatic). This is a society in which glory becomes indiscernible from economy and government.

In this text, could the crisis faced by art be caused by a deep and fundamental shift in perception as a result of the new mediums (photography, film, etc.)? That the crisis is not really an erosion of the fabric of tradition but the death of one constellation and the birth of another constellation of traditions. And the rejection of the social dimension of art (seeing “l’art pour l’art”) as the migration of art to ‘culture’: as a means of producing the biopolitical body mentioned in Agamben’s Homo Sacer. Art, like law and power are becoming situational. If we continue to consider Agamben’s work, then the mechanically reproduced art may serve to link order to space – touching on the virtual object of society/power/tradition, Lacan’s Big Other as the socio-symbolic order that I use to judge myself by (see Zizek’s In Defence of Lost Causes). Benjamin could be suggesting this transition when he says that “the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.”

The intrusion of (bio)politics into art, and the migration of art to culture or communication, is witnessed in the erosion of the barrier between the artist and the public; such as blurring of writer/public in newspapers’ letters to the editor (example from Benjamin), or in the very existence of YouTube. What about contemporary Iranian directors such as Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami who often blur the line between fact/fiction and actor/individual (example: Makhmalbaf’s film, Moment of Innocense aka The Bread and the Flower Pot)? As Benjamin puts it, this erosion can make the work common property, relating to the notion that media is spread into every aspect of modern life. But, where is the revolutionary potential in this art? Is there a clue in the Iranian cinema already mentioned, by the confusion created in the beholder who eventually realizes that reality and fiction are bleeding into each other and here provokes a response from the beholder who on some level realizes the subjectivity of our social anchors? Something similar seems to occus in Saramago’s the History of the Siege of Lisbon, in which the reader is confronted by two histories of Lisbon, one officially true but still erroneous, and the other fictional and also false. But, as Benjamin writes, art is commonly used “to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations.” Is there a clue in the works of the Iranian directors in how we might use these new mediums, which have so often penetrated the web of our daily lives to extend the reach of power into our social reproduction, to rather “construct a new common language that facilitates communication as the languages of anti-imperialism and proletarian internationalism did for the stuggles of a previous era. Perhaps this needs to be a new type of communication that functions not on the basis of resemblances but on the basis of differences: a communication of singularities.” (Hardt, Negri, Empire P57). Interestingly, Debord writes, in his Society of spectacle, that currently “the unification achieved is nothing but an official language of general separation.”

The latest texts that I’ve been reading have served as responses to some of the questions that were provoked in me by reading Benjamin.

For example, how can contemporary art oppose power? By expressing truth, as Badiou defines it in ‘Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art‘: “artistic creation today should suggest a new universality, not to express only the self or the community, but that it’s a necessity for the artistic creation to propose to us, to humanity in general, a new sort of universality.” I find that Badiou’s essay makes for a great read following Benjamin’s essay. A quote from Zizek, in ‘Smashing the Neighbor’s Face‘, is also rich with insight on this topic:

“…my tendency to assert myself, is thus not my assertion at the expense of the world, but my full acceptance of being part of the world, my assertion of the wider reality within which I can only thrive. The opposition of egotism and altruism is thus overcome: I fully am not as an isolated Self, but in the thriving reality part of which I am.”

Back to how Badiou’s essay relates to Benjamin’s; the former addresses the question of what could be the emancipatory role of contemporary art. I think Badiou’s essay itself approaches what he argues should be contemporary art, in his own terms: “a demonstration, an ambush in the night, and a star.” This is especially interesting to me since I often write on international affairs, and the nature and application of global power mainly in Asia, and would like to reframe the very nature of my writing – not to be used as a blunt instrument to provide answers, or even ask the right questions (whatever those are…), but rather – to borrow DeLanda’s thoughts on material expressivity and affordability – to inspire a critical and creative environment that affords the reader a tendency to ask their own critical questions and ambush themselves with a paradigm shift.

Links:
Benjamin, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Badiou, Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art
Zizek, Smashing the Neighbor’s Face
DeLanda, video lecture
DeLanda, Material Expressivity

Audio: Graham Harman’s talk at the LSE, “Assemblages According to Manuel DeLanda”

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Harman discusses the philosophies of Manuel DeLanda in a long lecture at the LSE’s Anthem seminar. Download or listen to it here. A power point presentation of talking points is also available online.

‘Democracy, Economics, and the Military’ – Manuel DeLanda

April 10, 2009 Leave a comment

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This is a video of a lecture by the philosopher Manuel DeLanda, discussing politics and power, economics, and military discipline. He ties these three subjects together in a concise and well referenced thesis reinterpreting economic history. DeLanda stresses the importance of abandoning a binary logic of political study in recognition of the heterogeneous nature of socio-political networks.

There is a clear correlation here with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari‘s theory of rhizomatic assemblage (see the book A Thousand Plateaus), as well as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri‘s interpretation of political power through the interrelated network of the multitude (see the book Empire). DeLanda introduces the subject by quoting from Fernand Braudel‘s ‘History of Economic Systems’ to support his argument. The lecture brings together the theories of diverse historians, economists, and political philosophers in an attempt to reframe our understanding of political history and economic power.

DeLanda states that a unitary understanding of economics, such as seeing capitalism as a homogeneous system is simplistic and faulty. He presents the works of some institutional economists, such as John Kenneth Galbraith, as sometimes more discerning, and he explains that we must realize that the market and capitalism are not one and the same. He argues that a multiplicity of economic systems have coexisted within European and Western history, and that it is not useful to view economic history as a migration from one homogeneous system to the next (such as from feudalism all the way to monopoly capitalism).

Furthermore, DeLanda explains the impact of military discipline on contemporary industrial and economic discipline. As an example, he states that management science taught in business schools is an extension and translation of earlier theories from military operations research.

Here are some related readings to learn more about the subject:

Manuel DeLanda, ‘A new philosophy of society

Fernand Braudel, ‘On History

Fernand Braudel, ‘Civilization & Capitalism: 15th-18th Century

Fernand Braudel, ‘The Mediterranean: Volume II

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, ‘A Thousand Plateaus’

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, ‘Empire’

Michel Foucault, ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Immanuel Wallerstein, ‘Time and Duration: The Unexcluded Middle

Thorstein Veblen, ‘Conspicuous Consumption

Philosophy lectures online

The European Graduate School’s media and communications program has an impressive and growing Youtube channel with over 600 video lectures on philosophy, film, politics, and art.

Lecturers include Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, Jean Beaudrillard, Slavoj Zizek, Peter Greenaway, Judith Butler, Manuel DeLanda, Alain Badiou, Atom Egoyan, Giorgi Agamben, Avital Ronell, Chantal Akerman, Michael Hardt, and many more.

This site has enough to keep you occupied for months. Check out the EGS Video channel.

Here’s a sample from the site:

Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, and Larry Rickels

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Philosophy and Meaning: Zizek’s Christ, Hegel, Wagner

February 11, 2009 Leave a comment

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Since 2005, I have increasingly been following the works of Slavoj Zizek. What first attracted me to him was how I was able to use some of the tools provided by his philosophical essays: to reformulate the very dimension from which questions are asked.

Secondly, the very methods of communication inspired me. I was and continue to be impressed by Zizek’s ability to strike a common theme between seemingly disparate subjects: from particular films, to foods, literature, and politics. Stylistically, his writing and lectures have an aesthetic gravity and rhythm that pulls the audience through chambers of interrelated thought with a certain ease that defies the common notion that complex theory is difficult to relate in simple language. I have found that these tools of communication can be applied to many genres of writing, from creative prose to policy analysis.

At times, I find myself recoiling from some of Zizek’s opinions. As I try to understand my own reaction, I sometimes find myself agreeing in the end, dismissing certain illusions previously held. Occasionally, it seems difficult to know if Zizek is sincere in defending a particular opinion. Vulgarity may itself be another tool used to provoke a strong response. It becomes difficult then to ignore the subject. These provocations incite a critical examination of the subject leading to conscious examination.

In the short essay, ‘Christ, Hegel, Wagner’, Zizek quotes Borges as saying that “a book which does not contain its counter-book is considered incomplete.”

I believe that Zizek’s essay, and the above quote, articulate the dialectic composition of not only his theories but also of how they are communicated. Zizek outlines three dialectic methods of narrative logic in the text. In the three methods there are two planes to each narrative.

In the first method, story 1 resides on the most visible plane of the narrative. Story 2 is, as he says, “all of a sudden displaced, re-framed, relocated into, or supplemented by, another story.” Though the two planes are interrelated, once the first appears completed the second intrudes and continues in partial opposition to its precedent. Together, they formulate a complete story.

Zizek paraphrases Pilger: “that a story always has a double characteristic and always tells two stories at the same time, which provides the opportunity to distinguish the story which is on the first plane from the number 2 story which is encoded in the interstices of story number 1.”

The provocative intrusion of a second story in Jose Saramago’s novel, ‘The History of the Siege of Lisbon,’ is a clear example of a book that contains a counter-book. In Saramago’s book, the protagonist alters a historical text on Lisbon to contain one important incorrect fact about the early history of the city. This lie results in a second telling of the same history, this time founded upon a fiction. This narrative logic threatens the reader’s perception of reality by confusion fact with fiction. Saramago uses this tool to investigate the nature of historiography and highlight the subjectivity of our understanding of human history.

In the second method, story 2 is sealed within the first plane. It exists as an empty space discernable yet unarticulated. In many of De Chirico’s paintings, empty space is pregnant with meaning. An immaterial object resides within these spaces. The architecture of the first plane of the paintings would be incomplete without them.

I am reminded of a lecture by Manuel DeLanda on Deleuze’s theory of nonhuman expressivity, in which he explains the importance of the environment in affording “risks and opportunities” to its inhabitants. Story 2 is encapsulated in story 1, yet remains invisible. To paraphrase Zizek, the first plane “permits the reader to perceive that there is a second story that needs to be told but which remains absent.”

The third method presents story 2 on the visible plane and story 1 is unarticulated. Story 2, traditionally the counter-story, is dominant, such as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. This surreal or “secret story” appears on the first plane. What is encoded within this visible plane is normally what should have been apparent yet remains veiled by the “secret story.”

The style of narrative logic in which the counter-story is included can lead to what Zizek describes as the negation of negation. An example given in the essay is a theory in the ‘Communist Manifesto’ which asserts that “it is the capitalist freedom itself which is effectively the freedom to buy and sell on the market and thus the very form of un-freedom for those who have nothing but their labor force to sell; it is the capitalist property itself which means the ‘abolition’ of property for those who own no means of production.”

Zizek’s essay is useful for discerning the virtual plane of meaning within a narrative. This touches on the study of literature as well as that of social order and political strategy. Furthermore, these tools of storytelling are effective in communication, to relate the deeper meaning of a subject in the interstices of the dual story.

Theory of Nonhuman of Expressivity: DeLanda on Deleuze

February 5, 2009 2 comments

Below are videos on DeLanda’s thoughts on Deleuze’s theory of nonhuman expressivity. DeLanda speaks on the migration from ‘finger prints’ in nature, to signatures such as animal markings of territory, to style. He goes on to mention that our environment, including architecture, affords us opportunities and risks that animals and humans perceive then act upon. Could not the content, style, and medium of communication also afford potentialities?

DeLanda insists on the importance of a continuum that exists between life expressivity in nature to expressions of community and solidarity, to an expressivity of legitimacy. Essentially, specific expressions of life exist within expressions of political legitimacy, that messages on militarism, health, and more are included in these forms of communication.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

DeLanda on Deleuze: Beyond the General and Particular in Philosophy

February 5, 2009 1 comment

I’m again watching videos of the popular philosopher Manuel DeLanda speak on Deleuze‘s break with the tradition of philosophy based on the logic of general and particular categories of thought. I’m especially curious about this in light of trying to better communicate meaning, to surpass semantic meaning and touch on the significance of things, as DeLanda puts it. He articulates a trap that I often see myself falling into, bogged down by the phenomena of language while missing the significance of reality subject to an event or issue.

I first expressed a desire to fundamentally reformulate how I ask questions, the content of investigation, and the medium by which it’s communicated in an earlier post: Synecdoche and Political Analysis in the News.

I think the videos below are great tools in this quest. Plus, I have trouble understanding Deleuze without someone to translate him for me.

The videos are posted on the European Graduate School’s YouTube channel.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

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