Thursday, August 25, 2011

YouTube is MeTube


In the Internet age, when the line between "happenings" and publicity stunts has blurred, can performance art still resonate with the public?

James Wescott tries to answer the question posed by "Room for Debate" @ the New York Times:  
Whereas the performance itself opened up vertiginous depths of empathy, the online experience was addictive and alienating. Through the alchemy of the Internet, the performance loses some of its luster. From gazing to gawking, total immersion to idle browsing, the level of engagement is no longer the same. But at least more people could engage with it than the few who are part of the art world. Watching performance art online seems to license the kind of cruelty that live performance in the '70s sought to confront through brutal enactment of vulnerability and pain.
How could YouTube kill performance art? A Brobdingnagian percentage of YouTube users have the foggiest idea of what performance art is. On the other hand, why not seeing YouTube as a pre-MeTube whereby empathy becomes inpathy, yet another step towards informance, the ipseity of selfism? 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Postmodernism is dead. D'oh! What's next?


I find this piece on the "death" of Postmodernism written by Edward Docx, which speaks of a style of analysis now fashionable in some circles, i.e, that of killing the dead all over again. The writer generalizes certain events as unique of a period (postmodernism), which can easily be found in the preceded period (Modernity). If so, Docx is simply ruling as different what is in fact the same. Predictably, if something comes after something else, it has to be different. 
Well, the best way to begin to understand postmodernism is with reference to what went before: modernism. Unlike, say, the Enlightenment or Romanticism, postmodernism (even as a word) summons up the movement it intends to overturn.
Not so fast. How do you know the dead are "really" dead? Postmodernism is necessarily postmortem just because it has a retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Next, we should be happy to accept that to generalize is to characterize, i.e., to generalize.
Over time, though, a new difficulty was created: because postmodernism attacks everything, a mood of confusion and uncertainty began to grow and flourish until, in recent years, it became ubiquitous.
Let's leave aside the hyperbole. It's not clear what the writer means by "attack," or whether he is correct in assuming  that postmodernism "attacks everything" (which wouldn't save postmodernism itself from the attack, thus rendering it dead on arrival). Docx is either ignorant or he's talking about a different world. When it comes down to "attacks," Modernity makes postmodernism looks like a peacenik.1 Its history that of constant ideological revolutions: Kepler vs. Ptolemy, Kant vs. metaphysics, Darwin vs. religion, Marx vs. capitalism, Freud vs. Victorian morals, Heidegger vs. the modern Cartesian subject, Wittgenstein vs. logical analycity, Frankfurt School vs. traditional aesthetics and enlightenment, etc, etc.

Either you account for these events as "internal" to Modernity, or they become "external." But if Modernity has "external" events, how do you explain it? Is Modernity a "physical" global epoch engulfing everything, or is it just an epochal discourse prevalent in the West? 2 Is one postmodern by being inside the 1970's-1990's or by defending a particular worldview? Docx seems oblivious to these mounting problems, yet he manages to plow ahead:
Unlike, say, the Enlightenment or Romanticism, postmodernism (even as a word) summons up the movement it intends to overturn. In this way, postmodernism might be seen as the delayed germination of an older seed, planted by artists like Marcel Duchamp, during modernism’s high noon of the 1920s and 1930s.
The underlined metaphor above, taken from the natural sciences, gives this idea of process. If postmodernism is a "delayed germination", then processes can slow down or speed up. But there is an elephant in the room: Process is how we talk about time. That is to say, natural change requires, or perhaps is time. Docx handles time like a ruler:
In the beginning, postmodernism was not merely ironical, merely gesture, some kind of clever sham, a hotchpotch for the sake of it.
What beginning? How do you cut process? Do you simply say: "I know when I see it"? What if what appears as different is just another "delayed germination"? Don't forget you're always in the present, which makes your observation either relative to the past or predictably paradoxical. Why? Because of becoming

Hegel, a modern and a romantic, analyzed time in terms of becoming. But surprise! As that constant exchange of coming-to-being and passing-away, becoming slips through your fingers. That is to say, when you see it, you don't.3 Docx doesn't seem aware of this paradox. He identifies "what is" from "what is-not" -as if he was "outside" the process. Sure, he can always retort: "Oh, but I'm talking about history." I find the whole business predictably circular: The author is in the weird predicament of attending postmodernism's vigil while having  no f**** idea of who is the surviving next-of-kin sitting besides him at the funeral.
1 My talking of Modernity instead of Modernism doesn't change a thing. What I'm getting at is this: Is Modernity everything there is? Can there be an "other" of Modernity? 2 Isn't it obvious that both the discourse and counter-discourse on Modernity are West-centered? 3 "The being which, in being, is not and in not-being, is." (Philosophy of Nature, §258; Suhrkamp 9).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

the spectator behind the window has become the world's measure by making the world a matter of vision

The collages above by artist Abigail Reynolds @ Seventeen Gallery ( London, 2011).

Reynolds' collages express a complex materiality of time/space, which illustrates our post-capitalist uncertainty. What is it? A moment when the "old modern" hazards undermine and/or cancel the established safety systems of the provident state's existing risk calculation. Recurrence of early industrial risks (as in China's high-speed train crash). Nuclear disasters (as in Japan's Fukushima's nuclear plant meltdown). A global ecological crisis everywhere. This new predicament can be limited neither in terms of time nor place, is not accountable according to established rules of causality, blame and liability, and it cannot be compensated or insured against. In other words, Chernobyl is the new normal.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Stanley Fish and the hyperbole of moral absolutes


Update: As I finish this post, "Does Philosophy Matter" (Part Two) appears.
In the days following 9/11, during G.W. Bush's reign, moral absolutes became the lay of the land. All of a sudden, people with pluralistic (and relativistic) views became targets of a moral crusade (a matter of national policy along with mandatory use of flag-lapel-pins). Such is the context of this article by Stanley Fish. Here is a telling paragraph:
Postmodernism maintains only that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one. The only thing postmodern thought argues against is the hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies. Invoking the abstract notions of justice and truth to support our cause wouldn't be effective anyway because our adversaries lay claim to the same language. (No one declares himself to be an apostle of injustice.)
Philosopher Paul Boghossian takes issue with Fish's 2001 article. He zooms in on this fragment by Fish:
Is it plausible to respond to the rejection of absolute moral facts with a relativistic view of morality?  Why should our response not be a more extreme, nihilistic one, according to which we stop using normative terms like “right” and “wrong” altogether, be it in their absolutist or relativist guises?
Then, Fish responds to Boghossian's article:
I believe there are moral absolutes, but (a) there are too many candidates for membership in that category and (b) there is no device, mechanical test, algorithm or knock-down argument for determining which candidates are the true ones.
Boghossian takes Fish to be a moral relativist.* Not true: Fish's paragraph above suggests he is a pluralist. That is to say, he believes in a few moral absolutes, and uses "right" and "wrong" as valid normative moral tropes.**

On the other hand, I take issue with Fish's own presentation. What does it mean? There are certainly persuasive arguments in favor of at least a few moral absolutes, like unnecessary suffering is wrong, which I don't think Fish would disagree with. But it seems he needs -wants- more. Is a knock-down argument the kind of proof that suddenly plugs one right in the face?

But this takes away a crucial aspect of moral discussions (and I don't think this is exclusively circumscribed to an academic environment), i.e, the possibility of moral discussions entails the possibility of moral discovery,*** which is why I disagree with this paragraph:
But does any of this matter outside the esoteric arena of philosophical disputation? Let’s suppose that either of  two acts of persuasion has occurred in that arena: a former moral absolutist is now a relativist of some kind, or a former relativist is now a confirmed believer in moral absolutes. What exactly will have changed  when one set of philosophical views has been swapped for another? Almost nothing.
I'm surprised that a Professor of Law would say such a thing. Any confinement of issues to arenas or disciplines or professional communities should be resisted. There is really no esoteric arena (even if some philosophers could be as didactically embroiled as Boghossian). Only a relapse into this disciplinary idea of interpretive community can justify this kink by Fish:
To say this is to assert that doing philosophy is an activity that underlies our thinking at every point, and to imply that if we want to think clearly about anything we should either become philosophers or sit at the feet of philosophers. But  philosophy is not the name of, or the site of, thought  generally; it is a special, insular form of thought and  its propositions have weight and value only in the precincts of its game.
Boxing any discipline into a self-sufficient arena, as if there was no possibility of relevant communication between it and the outside doesn't make much sense. The slogan reads:  Philosophers think, which makes philosophy a thinking discipline alright, but not all thinking needs to be philosophical.

Frankly, I expected more from the author of Is There a Text in This Class.

*The pluralist doesn't deny absolutes, though he prefers to be a minimalist about them. The difference between the relativist and the pluralist is that the latter believes there is "right" and "wrong" and "better" and "worse." **Boghossian is a heavy-handed polemicist; his long-winded style an example of why philosophy is considered esoteric. Reading his NYTimes piece, I though of what Eli Hirsch refers to as Putnam's Constraint, i.e., that the relevant features of a situation should be brought out by an explanation and not buried in a mass of irrelevant information -which is what Boghossian does. He sounds so much like an academic philosopher that proves Fish's (understated) point that this is a problem of misunderstanding within different communities. Even if Boghossian was right, you feel there is no point. It's like you disagree with your father: He's the boss. ***My post follows this discussion @ Leiter Reports, where I left the following comment:
i sort of agree with sf. let's bring up the issue of epochal-normativity.
is slavery wrong? absolutely! but am saying this in 2011, in hindsight, after the argument on slavery has been tweaked by countless contributions, beginning with cicero, seneca, the medievalists, bartolome de las casas, luis de molina, kant, the abolitionists, etc, etc.). let's rewind the tape: how about someone like seneca? (one of the smartest man in his century) as he writes to lucilius, he is aware of the suffering of his own slaves, he sympathizes with them, he considers them "human" (an important term for his time), yet he cannot bring himself to move beyond his worldview. why? same happened with jefferson -an enlightened man in my book- centuries later. can we say that slavery is right in ancient rome and wrong now? i'd agree with the qualification that romans didn't have the benefit of our arguments. but this answer is epochally-circular. so, it seems that when i say (and absolutely believe) that slavery is wrong, this is just one of those instances when "absolutely" does very little. it packs more than it can actually deliver.