Monday, February 17, 2014

Call for Proposals: Art/Power

Looking back at yesterday's post with a critical eye, I realize that I skimmed over a non-obvious idea that seems obvious to me, namely, that the relationship between artistic creation and politics is very close, possibly that of a set to a subset, or at the very least the relationship of two homologous sets. Both consist of attempts to imaginatively reshape the world according to a set of ideas and intentions that take shape in a non-empirical fashion. There are, even in popular parlance, plenty of references to politics as a kind of art, e.g., "the art of the possible." The Marxist attempt to conceive of politics as a scientific endeavor, sympathetic as I have been to it, must be accounted a failure. And don't even get me started on mainstream "political science".

Several non-European metaphysics speak of artistic creation as a kind of exercise of "power," and thus, in a certain sense, situate it as a kind of political or protopolitical action. Nor is such a view entirely other to the European philosophical tradition. It appears as recently as Kant's theory of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment. It certainly applies to the critique of the arts as increasingly degenerate forms of mimesis in Plato's Republic. And in Aristotle's system, ethics, politics, rhetoric and poetics form a nearly seamless theory of the modes of human action; to the extent it has seams, they appear either due to lacunae in the available manuscripts or to the things that the philosopher found unthinkable due to his own class and gender position. The separation of the aesthetic and the political into distinct spheres, whose points of overlap can be dismissed as "propaganda," is an historically recent phenomenon, largely coincident with the emergence of the bourgeois subject.

It then occurred to me that I know several people who, even if they would not necessarily agree entirely with how I've framed the question above, could speak knowledgeably about the relationship between art and power. And there are several more people whom I don't "know" as such, but who follow me on Twitter and vice versa, who might also have something to say.

So what I would like to do is schedule an occasional series of conversations, the text of which will be posted on this blog. If you think you have something to say about this, and follow me on Twitter, then send me a DM with a brief capsule of the topic you'd like to discuss under the heading of "Art/Power". If it catches my fancy, we'll work out the logistics. (Others can expect an e-mail solicitation.)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ozymandias and His Children

"And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

--from Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias"

It is difficult to predict which aspects of our civilization will remain as evidence of the era of Late Capitalist American Global Hegemony (aka the Proto-Anthropocene). If a private profit could be realized made from demolishing the Empire State Building, it would be. The monuments of state cults--the Statue of Liberty, the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, Mount Rushmore--are perhaps more secure. Yet within twenty years, we may well see the Potomac Estuary lapping at the foundations of the White House and the presidential memorials.

The artistic impulse overlaps with the monumental impulse in ways that are uncomfortable for those who feel it, yet also feel an allergy to power. How does the desire to create something that will outlive one's physical form and leave an imprint on the minds of generations to come differ from Ozymandias' call to despair? For how much longer will there be people capable of reading and understanding Shelley's poem? Even as he castigated the pretensions of the powerful, was he perhaps clearing the ideological path of antique rubble in preparation for a new ruling clique, for whom the monuments of old are at best sites for commerce, at worst obstacles? After all that was solid has melted into the air, will we find, perhaps, that his partner Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the more prescient writer with her Frankenstein? And for how much longer will that, even, be readable? Who will find Abe Lincoln's vast and trunkless legs of stone: adaptable hominids, newly ascendant crows or intelligent insects, or extraterrestrial travelers?

The artistic impulse and the monumental impulse both presuppose a more fundamental human responsibility, to create or maintain the conditions for the continued flourishing of our species. In that respect, I fear that it is safe to say to those of us who have been of an age of political majority for long enough to have tried to make a difference, i.e., those of us including myself over the age of 35, that we have failed. We have all failed.

You rebel against this. You point to your own personal accomplishments, or to incremental collective betterments that have come to pass in your lifetime. At the very least, you plead, must you be so pessimistic? Can't you look on the bright side? Especially if you are American, you will say this, because success is our true national religion, failure the devil to be beaten, and optimism an ingrained disposition.

Ask yourself, then: Will we leave 80% of the world's known fossil fuel reserves in the ground? Have we been proceeding inexorably toward known tipping points? Is there any political force that can be plausibly expected to take state power within the next generation and do what must be done? Answer those questions honestly and you will agree: We have failed.

This is the case for all of us collectively, regardless of whether you ever believed that humanity had to overthrow and surpass the capitalist mode of production. Whether you consider it more blameworthy to have been among the majority who never quite believed it, or the minority who believed it, still believes it, but never pulled it off, depends on which you consider more despicable, ignorance or incompetence. I think incompetence is worse than ignorance, so I think the minority of which I am part deserves quite a bit of blame. The only ones more hateful are those who have quite competently profited from our collective self-destruction.

Say it now: I have failed. We have failed.

To say it and mean it can be strangely freeing. One is freed from the burden of measuring one's beliefs and actions against a purported "correct" ideology and praxis, since all that have hitherto existed have contributed in some way to this failure. One is freed from having to lecture the younger generations, the ones who will live most of their lives in the shadow of our failure, on all the lessons one has learned in a lifetime of defeats, since it is safe to say that those lessons are likely false. Our actions at this point must be measured not against an ideal, but with the methods of harm reduction: Does what I do, in some way, lessen the present or future suffering of others? If so, it is worth doing. If not, stop it.

For over a decade, I aspired to contribute in a small way to the construction of a monument to human capabilities, to be a metaphorical mason filing the toenails of a future Ozymandias. The lack of aspiration, the lack of ambition, is an emotional transformation to which I have only slowly acclimated myself. This loss of aspiration and ambition is now an ethical imperative for those of my generation and older.

For those younger, the challenges are much greater. They will have to reshape their modes of belief and action to minimize the loss of human life and clean up the messes left to them, and do so in a situation where the guidance of elders is either useless or deleterious. They will be the ones plundering the monuments for building materials to shore up the neglected irrigation canals, destroying an old civilization to try and create the conditions for a new one.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Hidden Injuries

On this snowy day, I have finished two non-fiction books that I feel compelled to recommend:
  • Falling Into the Fire: A Psychiatrists's Encounters with the Mind in Crisis by Christine Montross, and
  • Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago by Christine J. Walley

The title of the first says what it is almost fully, and in so doing conveys both its strengths and weaknesses. It falls into the subgenre of medical memoir. Its explanatory framework rests heavily upon the Cartesian dualism of mind and body even as it describes syndromes and disorders that call that distinction into question. And yet the anecdotes are told with a fundamental empathy for the patients, such that even though the emphasis is on Montross's own diagnostic and ethical conundrums, the basic fact of the patient's suffering never drifts from the authorial gaze. In so doing, there is no trace of the narcissistic messianism of the healer, nor little dwelling in the equally narcissistic morass of self-doubt. As such, the book provides a glimpse into an extreme state of being human that otherwise could not be accessed, short of an in-patient stay in a psychiatric ward. Reading this book is likely preferable to staying in a psychiatric ward--a judgment that sounds like faint praise, but should be read instead as testament to Montross's ability to convey authenticity of experience through her prose.

Walley's book fits into a much smaller subgenre, that of academics born into the working class using the tools of their scholarly discipline to look back on their upbringing, while also using the experience of that upbringing to critique the stereotyped images of working-class life prevalent in both academic literature and popular culture. Pierre Bourdieu's Sketch for a Self-Analysis may be the first example of such a work. Walley's book may be the first of its kind insofar as the author is both American--the degree to which the discourse of class in the United States is stunted and confused becomes clear through contrast to this book--and a white woman who is not the daughter of immigrants--among the many confusions in U.S. class discourse, which Walley ably takes apart, is its conflation with the dynamics of race and migration, and so it is that, what few accounts there are of traversing the path from proletariat to professoriat become tales either of assimilation or of the enduring power of racial-caste barriers within the precincts of privilege. If there are other examples of this type of book, they can likely be found in Walley's extensive bibliography: Any failure to undertake a literature is mine, not hers.

Unlike Bourdieu, Walley is an anthropologist by training, and so she is not gripped by the sociologist's compulsion to quantify and demonstrate generalizability and statistical significance, though facts and figures can be found in the endnotes to buttress her arguments. In this "autoethnography," as she refers to it at times, it is not so much that the stories speak for themselves as that from the stories one can discern how different people who took part in the same story could draw often widely divergent conclusions. And from the stories one can, if one is so inclined, draw different conclusions than Walley.

The "leftist trainspotter" in me wonders, for example, about the details of the political activity alluded to during her years as a graduate student at NYU in the 90s, even as I admire the acuity of her perception of the class origins of many (not all) New York radicals:

'As a graduate student in New York, I would myself come to romanticize a certain brand of left-leaning politics that ... I valued for the paths it provided to talk openly about class in the United States. I also deeply admired the political conviction of some activists and intellectuals that I met around the city and their commitment to forging a more just world. At the same time, I became increasingly uneasy that although "Class" (with a capital C) was spoken about overtly, there was often little self-reflexive attention to other class dynamics: why, for example, were so many of the "radicals" I knew in New York individuals from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds, many of whom were deeply concerned with differentiating themselves from their own suburban upbringings? Why was there such a distressing lack of knowledge of actual working-class people? When many such activists did know working-class people, I discovered, it tended to be individuals who shared their own political viewpoints, confirming their own view of working-class perspectives, rather than acknowledging such perspectives might be part of a kaleidoscope of opinions, or perhaps even a minority one, within working-class neighborhoods.' (111-112)

One can reflect on those observations very fruitfully without necessarily sharing her subsequent dismissal of all U.S. politics, including radical politics, as "a kind of gladiatorial battle between differing factions of the middle and upper middle classes"--though even that judgment partakes of more than enough truth to be discomfiting.

There is little to explicitly link these books other than the happenstances that both their authors are named Christine and that I completed them both on the same day. But both speak of a kind of hidden injury: Walley, quite explicitly, of the "hidden injuries of class," a phrase she borrows from Sennett and Cobb, and argues convincingly extend all the way down "to the cellular level" and "the chemistry of our bodies". (A judgment I am compelled to agree with every time I reach for my asthma inhaler.) The hidden injuries of which Montross speaks are the psychological lesions to which one may or may not have genetic or neurological predispositions, but which take shape through the emotional lacerations human beings inflict upon one another.