Through the (Immediate) Past, Darkly

We are compelled to bookend the event, to portion months and years up into manageable, quantifiable volumes of matter and memory.  If time is the ultimate capitalist commodity, then our quantification of time is its currency, and it is in this way that the annual review-of-the-year rundowns which one can read in any given broadsheet or tabloid, or viewed on December 31st through a gaze of varying levels of ridicule are -to all intents and purposes – its audit.  Is it of any value to do this from a philosophical angle?  And, indeed, wherein lies the point?  Is it in order to file away each successive year into a unitary index for the historian or sociologist to access at their convenience?  If so, are we not further commodifying our notions of time?  In order to give this interrogation some perspective, perhaps we should benefit from referring to Manuel DeLanda (1952 – )’s excellent introduction to A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History:

 

“(I)f the different “stages” of human history were indeed brought about by phase transitions, then they are not “stages” at all – that is, progressive developmental steps, each better than the previous one, and indeed leaving the previous one behind.  On the contrary, much as water’s solid, liquid, and gas phases may coexist, so each new human phase simply added itself to the other ones, coexisting and interacting with them without leaving them in the past.”[1]

time-and-free-will-an-essay-on-the-immediate-data-of-consciousness

This being considered, is not our Gregorian inclination towards sectioning off units of duration rendered utterly meaningless?  Certainly, it may serve to “time-map” individual and collective events, it can also be useful as measurement of progress and decline.  It can, however, be of very little use to the contemporary thinker as Élan vital.  It is futile to review a year in terms of its singularity.  What we think of as “time” is little more than the shifting of energy, the passing of matter from one state to another.  There was, and never could be a 2018, as duration, that which we think of as “time” would necessitate each antecedent year forcing themselves as one into that year which is being experienced.  This is Bergsonism at its purest (albeit, too, at its most simplified), and if we were to take that model of the  present being nothing other than the past happening all at once – insofar as one may interpret such a complex idea out of its parole – then we may find a perfect analogy for our times: the Twenty-First Century can be defined by its concentrated repetition of the past, both culturally and politically, and perhaps provides us with the first significant parallels between Henri Bergson (1859 – 1941) – for decades dismissed as an antiquity of the old guard in philosophy – and Marxist poststructural thinkers such as Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) and, more recently, Mark Fisher (1968 – 2017).  For, if we were to take the concept of Bergson’s Duration out of the confines of analytic philosophy and place it in the broader spectrum of Critical Theory (and we surely can, as was amply proven by Gilles Deleuze (1925 – 1995)’s re-interpretations of Bergsonism), then what we are presented with is a like-for-like match of what Fisher called The Slow Cancellation of the Future[2], the “temporal malaise” which is so much a hallmark of contemporary culture that one is hard-pressed to discern between that which has been created last week and the artefacts of the 1970s and 1980s.

slow cancellation 1

 

Contemporary thinking, I would suggest, has all but eradicated the notion of a sole Philosopher King stood atop his plateau (to borrow the Deleuzian analogy).  This has been the case for several decades.  In his 1957 foreword to the second edition of Critique of Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre (1901 – 1991) notes

 

“…professional philosophers generally ignored the book; for – starting with its title – it entailed relinquishing the traditional image of the philosopher as master and ruler of existence, witness and judge of life from the outside, enthroned above the masses, above the moments lost in triviality, ‘distinguished’ by an attitude and a distance.” [3]

 

Philosophy has, over the years, necessarily been a process of cross-pollination of thought.  In Elemental Discourses, John Sallis (1938 – ) writes

 

(i)n Derrida’s texts there are many voices. Some occur as citations from Husserl, Heidegger, or other authors. Yet, in the strict sense whatever is set forth in citations is not the voice of another but rather a passage from a written text. Even if what is cited should happen to be words once heard in the voice of another, they will, in being cited, have been transposed into the written text; in this transposition the voice of the other will have been silenced. And yet, we sometimes attest that in reading the words of an author we can hear his voice behind the words, that we can hear it silently resounding.”[4]

 

Thus we may observe the clinamen of Lucretius evolve throughout the ages and become Deleuze and Guattaris’ desire, accounting for the clinamen’s inclination towards capital.  Indeed, the most pertinent and evolutionary use of philosophy is to commandeer from its massive historical inventory of themes and ideas – and, it can be argued, this is how philosophy finds its true meaning (Deleuze and Guattari themselves said “the only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work.  Kleist and a mad war machine, Kafka and a most extraordinary bureaucratic machine ….”[5]).  One need not absorb every text by Foucault, or attend two-hour lectures on Lacan to gain a healthy reserve of critical resources with which to formulate one’s own theories. Plato’s cave and Wittgenstein’s stonemasons serve very well as building blocks for an architecture of language and socialisation, reality and simulacra.  These ideas the modern philosopher must osmose and re-interpret, modify and apply pressure to, and for that very reason philosophical models function in much the same way as art: intense critical thought and complex abstractions simplified to the nth degree as signs, giving flesh to otherwise untranslatable concepts: art builds real architecture in Utopia and peoples it accordingly, yet it draws its strength from its ability to topple said architecture and rebuild.  Artistic movements provides the zeitgeist for this architecture, and these zeitgeists are the very agents of its destruction and reformation.  Much to Plato’s imagined chagrin, art is in many ways inseparable from critical thinking. At any given moment, the human mind is subject to incalculable heterogonous abstractions which superficially bear no relation to one another other than their chronological linearity – or the oft-cited stream of consciousness, that convenient one-size-fits-all coat with which lazy commentators have dressed such diverse literary figures as Beckett, Burroughs, Thompson, Joyce and Proust. Terms such as stream of consciousness exist to categorise that which has no formal category (other than, in this instance, that of literature).  But, if we again consult Bergson, thought processes are time in its purest state.

 

“Let us assume that all the sheep in the flock are identical; they differ at least by the position which they occupy in space, otherwise they would not form a flock. But now let us even set aside the fifty sheep themselves and retain only the idea of them. Either we include them all in the same image, and it follows as a necessary consequence that we place them side by side in an ideal space, or else we repeat fifty times in succession the image of a single one, and in that case it does seem, indeed, that the series lies in duration rather than in space. But we shall soon find out that it cannot be so. For if we picture to ourselves each of the sheep in the flock in succession and separately, we shall never have to do with more than a single sheep. In order that the number should go on increasing in proportion as we advance, we must retain the successive images and set them alongside each of the new units which we picture to ourselves: now, it is in space that such a juxtaposition takes place and not in pure duration.”[6]

 

The Twenty-First Century has, since 2001, been bereft of landmark political or social moments.  The key word here is “landmark,” indicating a fixed point in time after which the ideological apparatus in place before the event can no longer function, such is the impact it has on society, economics and culture.  The word “landmark” also implies space, rather than time, yet is no misuse: chronology and geography are intermingled in memory, creating those very ghosts which populate Derrida’s hauntology, and in keeping with the concept of hauntology, the most critical phenomena of the year occurred just as it was ending.  Two separate and distinct events, which happened no more than a week from one another at the end of December and superficially bear little-to-no relation, but which in fact have great reciprocal significance.  Firstly, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series gave us another instalment in the form of the feature-length Bandersnatch, which was closely followed by the announcement that HMV had gone into second liquidation, His Master’s Voice now nothing but a pitiable whimper in the neoliberal wind.  As outmoded a capitalist model as it is out of touch with the times, HMV has, for decades, pre-packaged culture and sold it on as part of some great promise that what that culture represents is the very essence of what one needs to understand our times.

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Within the first few minutes of Bandersnatch it becomes apparent that popular culture will never tire of revisiting the 1980s, as though that decade was both the genesis and zenith of our postmodern metanarrative.  And yet again, the past is shown to us through countless factual and technical filters – for instance, it is safe to say that nobody ever bought a Tangerine Dream album in WHSmith in the mid-1980s.  WHSmith, like HMV represents the Harrods model of “everything under one roof,” which for a store that deals in entertainment and culture, is a laughably hyperbolic claim.  Yet our memories of these shops, for those of us who had childhoods in the 1980s, portray them as precisely that, for our own undeveloped awareness of the sheer richness and variety of culture is reflected by HMV’s own limited scope of same.  Thus, it adequately met our stunted expectations.  As culture and technology evolved at an ever-increasing rate in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, it soon became the case that this capitalist model of the third place serving as cultural nexus could never fulfil our ever-more-sophisticated understandings of culture.  This could partially explain our craving for nostalgia, as the artefacts of the 1980s remind us of the last time we were culturally satiated – the economy of craving and fulfilment was in balance (perhaps it is only in childhood that this balance is ever truly equal).  “Nostalgia,” though, as Simon Reynolds (1963 – ) points out, is translated etymologically as “homesickness.”[7]   Contemporary sociologists favour the notion of a fourth place in order to tackle the workplace/home environment crossover, but it is more accurate to re-identify The Third Place as increasingly virtual.  This is hardly surprising, since 9/11 shattered what was quite possibly the West’s final moment when an event was experienced collectively in The Third Place, and was the last “where were you when…?” moment in living memory.  As the Twenty-First Century has unfolded, global events have occurred in what feels like a steady trickle, owing not to a lack of event, but in the way in which events are now relayed to us.  In the sixteen years since the towers collapsed, the ingestion of current affairs has gradually slipped away from the static television screen and become something experienced singularly (one-on-one) through portable, streamlined devices.  Before the internet, the news was fed to us daily at precise quarters of a clock, with the 6 and 9 PM instalments reserved for in-depth investigations into the ramifications of the day’s events.  This may well still be the case, but it is now by no means how we initially learn of these events, which are continuously fed to us via the offices of internet newsfeeds which have no beginning or end, and wholesale information dumps such as Twitter.  News is no longer dropped on us four times a day around a centralised information hub (i.e. television or radio), but is now with us all day, and can be accessed from any location via mobile phones, tablet and laptops.  Wi-Fi has freed us from the necessity of the specific location, and thus the “where were you?” moment can no longer really exist, since such an occasion is marked by more quotidian, tangential social interactions (since social media, we are paradoxically no longer social beings) – history has always been made in conjunction with analogue discourse to provide context and understanding; the pause for reflection has been superseded by the knee-jerk re-tweet.  Is it any wonder, then, that cultural eruptions comparable to that of 1976 have been scarce-to-non-existent during the last decade-and-a-half, and that the cultural satellites of the punk movement can now be bought in Primark on t-shirt racks which also contain images of Miles Davis and Marvel superheroes?

In this sense we can quite easily relate the lack of modern social information exchanges and their replacement by personalised feeds of information to a Twenty-First Century flatness, or to put it simply, an age when globally-relevant events are still unfolding on a daily basis but are no longer felt as shockwaves.  Without shockwaves there can be no fissures, which is where Twentieth-Century culture once thrived: jazz, pop, punk, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptual Art and the Postmodern break in general all happened as a consequence of events which were felt as they occurred, and carried real consequences, unlike the political pantomimes of today.  The ages in which these events happened had their own zeitgeist modelled from the social mood, and are remembered – perhaps rightly or wrongly – for their cultural and social values.  In an age which has had no real shockwaves or fissures a void has inevitably been created which has no atmosphere, zeitgeist or – crucially – human analogue.  Since domestic concerns are primarily centred around economy, the average Western citizen concerns him or herself with financial survival and the waning scope for prosperity.  Let us, for a moment, contemplate upon a strata of people working not for prosperity or an elevated standard of living, but only in order to cling onto the standard of living they already have.  The opiate of the masses has been superseded by a cold bucket of water, terror at a knock upon the door.  The clinamen of capital (its desire) is absolute subjectification.  In 2018, Brexit once more proved itself to be that very subjectification, spreading fear and hatred across the UK and using similar (albeit more sophisticated) tools to divide the country as did Germany in 1939.  Brexit is more pernicious than the campaigns of history, however: there is no single identified common enemy, no one sub-section of society singled out for persecution.  Rather, it plays to the worst fears of all social stratifications, always with one lingering threat – you will lose what you have. Again, as with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, one can discern a palpable sense of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” a clear attitude of “rather you than me.”  Brexit has played into the neoliberal ideology in the only way it could: divide and conquer.  But in recent years, it has become the norm for events to resemble past situations.  Occupy, it can be argued, was itself a modified sit-in, grafted from the late-1960s onto the present day and given an Economics degree.  Where it has prospered – as opposed to the disenfranchised, disconnected youth of fifty years ago – is in its organisation and the clarity of its voice, both of which can be attributed to technological agencies unimaginable in the last century.  We have lost our sense of the epoch-making event, the galvanising force to attempt something different: the rule book is no longer torn up, so much as it is re-told through post-millennial perspectives.

wwi-color-restored

October saw the release of Peter Jackson’s They shall Not Grow Old, a technically astonishing colourised documentary to mark the centenary of Armistice Day.  Nothing can detract from the visual and journalistic achievement, although one could also read the film via Jean Baudrillard and liken the process to, for instance, the endeavours of Japan’s Ōtsuka Museum of Art, where only precise facsimiles of well-known original works are displayed.  The museum is, of course, anything but that: indeed, one might say that it is part-PowerPoint presentation / part-PT Barnum grotesquerie.  Or perhaps the film is more akin to the Abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa which was rebuilt by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.in Upper Manhattan using building materials from the original abbey in Southern France from what remained after it was rebuilt in 840.  The latter suggestion is given more weight when one considers that much of the original footage found in They Shall Not Grow Old was filmed using arcane hand-crank cameras which struggled to maintain a steady 12 frames-per-second, which is why the original films appear so jerky.  This jerkiness has been digitally offset by high-end digital trickery to save the World War One soldiers from an eternity of coming across like “…Charlie Chaplin-type figures.[8]”  This obviously means that fifty percent of what one sees in Jackson’s film is not original footage at all, but very sophisticated computer animation.

When Jackson says “I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more” he misses the mark somewhat for what has actually happened is that these veterans have indeed been brought out of the past, but only in a digital suspension: half-human, half-computer-generated chimera, they hang on the screen like exhibits from the Ōtsuka Museum.  Similarly, much of the audio track to They Shall Not Grow Old is actors’ dialogue, translated via the offices of a deft lip-reader who no doubt spent as many hundreds of hours reviewing the original footage as Jackson’s team did animating it.

Curiously, one can with great ease finish watching They Shall Not Grow Old and immediately begin watching the first episode of Peaky Blinders (set in 1919, one year after armistice) without any disruption in either narrative or visual quality.  Peaky Blinders itself, is an example of history’s reworking and re-presentation.  Its non-diegetic soundtrack is entirely of the Twenty-First Century, and consists of artists aping the late 1970s and early 1980s.

 

There can be no table of contents for 2018, nor can it be reviewed month-by-month.  The writer cannot simply disclose a year as a series of events which range in importance or ramification.  I certainly have not done this (nor would I ever wish to).  Charlie Brooker, when not writing episodes of Black Mirror, will scan the year in a linear manner in his New Year’s Eve Wipe, but for serious discourse this can never fully articulate the essence of a twelve-month duration.  I will, however, borrow one recurring sound-off from Brooker:

 

“That was (2018)…now go away.”

 

[1] DeLanda, M. (1997). A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York: Zone Books, pp.15-16.

[2] Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts of my life. Winchester: Zero Books, pp.21-39.

[3] Lefebvre, H. (1991). Critique of everyday life. 2nd ed. London: Verso, p.5.

[4] Sallis, J. (2018). Elemental Discourses. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p.13.

[5] Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2004). A thousand plateaus. London: Continuum, p.5.

[6] Bergson, H., Ansell-Pearson, K. and Ó Maoilearca, J. (2002). Key writings. New York: Continuum, pp.49-50.

[7] Reynolds, S. (2012). Retromania. London: Faber and Faber, p.50.

[8] Ilse, J. (2019). Prince William attends World Premiere of “They Shall Not Grow Old”. [online] Royal Central. Available at: http://royalcentral.co.uk/uk/cambridges/prince-william-attends-world-premiere-of-they-shall-not-grow-old-110509 [Accessed 2 Jan. 2019].

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Decalcomania: Rhizomatic Analogy of the Art Object and its Simulacra – Where is the Precious Essence?

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There are two instances within this essay of previous journal entries being spliced into the main body of text. This works on two levels: the first level is the most logical, in that two short passages lay dormant in relatively spurious pieces of writing, and as an author I decided that they would be put to better use to illustrate similar points herein. The second reason is more abstruse, and perhaps illustrates those aforesaid points to a greater degree. Does the removal of these paragraphs and their subsequent transplanting onto these pages take anything away from their original essence, or are they given greater weight in the context of a lengthier (and by implication, more profound) text? The free play of signs and signifiers (so says Jacques Derrida [1]) would have it that those words were never rigidly fixed into those journal entries to begin with, and were merely a perceived element of my own construction. Yet what is a similar thing happens to works of art?
Decalcomania is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the process of transferring designs from prepared paper on to glass or porcelain. Without referring directly to the materiality explicit within the definition, Deleuze and Guattari – in their seminal work A Thousand Plateaus (2) – employ decalcomania to illustrate the rhizomatic process of creating maps rather than tracings. Here the map is the origin and centre of thought, whereas the tracing is the regressive tendency of ascribing hierarchical signifiance to arborescent thought, or to suggest that the map is, in the first place, fixed and unable to be altered in any way (with further implications that the map is the word of “God” [we may infer “God” in this context to refer to any form of higher spirituality or metaphysical other] and thus final). The distinction between arborescent and rhizomatic thought is key to an understanding of Deleuze and Guattaris’ philosophical viewpoint, and holistically of poststructuralist theory in general: arborescent plants are hierarchical and operate in a linear, binary and above all vertical manner, placing earlier strata of the root as original and containing greater value. In this way, one can trace Western thought retrospectively through to Plato, and work forwards from there. Deleuze and Guattari suggest the rhizome as a more truthful representation of thought, whereby roots operate in multiplicities, connecting thoughts non-hierarchically and operating within what they call the plane of consistency.
In Naruto, Japan the Ōtsuka Museum of Art has, since 1998, had on display nothing except ceramic reproductions of notable artworks from history. These works are created by firing photographic images onto flat ceramics, and the idea for this is ostensibly (and superficially) one of preservation: keep the art alive for as long as humanly possible by exhibiting its replica. This exemplifies perfectly the tracing as fixed arborescent obeisance to an established academic orthodoxy, and accepts unquestioningly the judgements of historical criticism. However, in contrast to conventional etiquette, visitors are actively encouraged to touch the works on display regardless of the fundamental truth that there is, in fact, nothing to touch – all that is reproduced is a two-dimensional photographic image and even sculptural works are reduced to these two dimensions. One could just as well enter “art history” into Google Images and project the results upon the gallery wall, such is the complete lack of substance for the visitor to actually interact with. These facsimiles also unwittingly work towards destroying the essence and vitality of the original: the more we rely on the reproduction as our primary communication with an artist’s intention, the more we allow that original intention (as most effectively contained within an original work) to fade from existence. This process, while ostensibly done in the name of preservation, actually preserves nothing, and merely allows us the privilege of choosing to erode the original art piece – erosion from the publics’ first-hand knowledge of the work (and, ultimately, memory) versus a more physical erosion which would result from prolonged exposure to public contact.
There are echoes of Georg Simmel (1858-1918) to be found within the not-so-radical praxis of the Ōtsuka Museum, and we are reminded of his lauded essay Der Henkel (The Handle, 1911) (3), in which Simmel postulated two distinct realities for objects: that of functionality and that of aesthetics, whilst correlating the unity of the two.

The handle belongs to the enclosed unity of the vase and at the same time designates the point of entrance for a teleology that is completely external to that form. It is of the most fundamental interest that the purely formal aesthetic demands on the handle are fulfilled when these two symbolic meanings of it are brought into harmony or equilibrium. Yet this is not an example of that curious dogma which makes utility a criterion of beauty. For the point at issue is precisely that utility and beauty come to the handle as two unrelated demands–the first from the world, and the second from the total form of the vase.

Doubtless Deleuze and Guattari would perceive one reality (the aesthetic) as the tracing of the other (the functional), however in the years following their deaths – 1995 and 1992, respectively – much has changed to redefine “reality” in the first place. And in this we arrive (somewhat rhizomatically) at Baudrillard – for we cannot discuss the ramifications of simulacra or an evolving sense of “reality” without also discussing his famous “Xerox degree of culture.” (4) We need only refer to the cloisters of Saint-Michel de Cuxa and their repatriation – twice-removed from their native South West France to New York and ultimately back to their original location to understand that very little is indeed beyond this process of artificial longevity. A dismantling, relocation and reassembling of an original artefact is by no means any less of a reproduction than a direct copy. The Ōtsuka Museum of Art handles art with much the same species of binary removal: once removed, the original works are also removed from the lay consciousness, while its clone assumes the role of its analogue source. For the essence, it may well be argued, lies in the birth of the original, because only at an artwork’s inception is the semiotic unity of intention (signified), creation (signifier) and display (sign) at its purest and only then is an artist and that artist’s audience experiencing a Deleuzian rupture. The event is forever time-locked into an artist’s primary idea and a viewer’s initial encounter. After this event, the art remains as a reference for future discourse. If the sign is the art piece, the signified is the referent and the signified the meaning, there is an extra layer of meaning between Sign and Signified which takes place during artistic presentation. To wit, the meaning in Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting is not on the canvas itself, nor was it during the painting’s creation, but rather lies in its presentation as an absence. This absence is seen often throughout the Twentieth-Century in response to Wittgensteinian silence, which in itself is demonstrated in Ludwig Uhland’s Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn whereby the referent in the poem is the cutting, or sprig. The fact that the meaning of the sprig is never revealed is where Wittgenstein find’s the essence of philosophical truth. Rather than some mystical, ineffable essence, absence is, linguistically, that which has the most power in being shown rather than said.

Count Eberhard Rustle-Beard,
From Württemberg’s fair land,
On holy errand steer’d
To Palestina’s strand.

The while he slowly rode
Along a woodland way;
He cut from the hawthorn bush
A little fresh green spray.

Then in his iron helm
The little sprig he plac’d;
And bore it in the wars,
And over the ocean waste.

And when he reach’d his home;
He plac’d it in the earth;
Where little leaves and buds
The gentle Spring call’d forth.

He went each year to it,
The Count so brave and true;
And overjoy’d was he
To witness how it grew.

The Count was worn with age
The sprig became a tree;
‘Neath which the old man oft
Would sit in reverie.

The branching arch so high,
Whose whisper is so bland,
Reminds him of the past
And Palestina’s strand. (5)

Contemporary art has a propensity for relying on an arborescent structure of value for individual works – a propensity which has been in decline since Duchamp, yet which still – paradoxically – ascribes immense importance to the Duchampian method: a method which itself stood for (amongst other things) the end of arborescent hierarchies of culture. Art criticism still tends to value the already-valued whilst time-locking singular cultural events (or, to use a term favoured by Deleuze and Guattari, ruptures) in reverence to art historical (or arborescent) hierarchies, yet human endeavour constantly proves that the creative process exists far outside of such rigid temporality. On any given day, the human mind is subject to incalculable heterogeneous abstractions which superficially bear no relation to one another other than their chronological linearity – or the oft-cited stream of consciousness, that convenient one-size-fits-all coat with which lazy commentators have dressed such diverse literary figures as Beckett, Burroughs, Thompson, Joyce and Proust. Terms such as stream of consciousness exist to categorise that which has no formal category (other than, in this instance, that of literature), and visual artists are no more immune to such taxonomies. It is far too convenient to brand Thomas Hirschhorn a “Relational Aesthetician,” or Rauschenberg a “Pop Artist” when those are two synthetic terms created critically and applied arbitrarily. Rauschenberg could be equally as conceptual as any of his contemporaries in the ‘sixties, and in many ways Hirschhorn would have flourished during Fluxus or the Situationists. The only “real” reason why Pop Art was Pop Art is that there were critics present to record it. There is always more going on than critical terminology allows for – indeed, one of the primary questions an artist must ask of his or herself is whether or not their output should “nutshell” the world when the world, subject to the fundamental laws of universal entropy, will never do the same. It is not an artist’s job to present the world in its de facto state, but rather to recognise its many subliminal codifications, deconstruct said codifications and re-present all of this via strategies of different codifications peculiar to an artist’s peculiar specifications.

Certainly, the strategies available to an artist differ all the time, and often in tiny, incremental ways, and thus the artist must surrender to the multiplicity, or the plane of consistency. One can easily cite such an artist as John M Armleder as a primary exemplar of a body of work becoming one with the plane of consistency: ever-elusive of the Modernist propensity for material invention and suspicious of the Postmodernist tendency towards aping the past, Armleder has time and again fused the aesthetic with the utilitarian in his Furniture Sculptures. Initially associated with the Fluxus movement in the late 1960’s, the Geneva-born artist went on to found the Groupe Ecart in 1969 and has, for nearly five decades, produced an evolutionary body of work which makes little-to-no distinction between Art and life. Armleder has variously selected inspirational sources from what he calls “a supermarket of forms,” a term which we can infer to mean a world of constantly-replenished objects, new or outmoded commodities and a semantic slippage of quotidian vernacular.
Thus we have Armleder and The Groupe Ecart on the one hand, offering us the notion that there is virtually nothing to separate the art object from the utilitarian, while on the other hand The Ōtsuka Museum of Art has homogenised the art object, converting it into a simple referent. If Armleder’s marriage of the quotidian to the essential yet retains trace elements of recherché (and one has good cause to argue that this is the case, and more besides), then the Ōtsuka has dredged history of its cultural precious essences, drained its artefacts of their rarity and left nothing but the dried husks picked clean by centuries of critical orthodoxy. The essence, then, can be said to lie within the encounter: an encounter which, owing to that aforesaid Xerox degree of culture, has within the walls of the Ōtsuka, become retrospective, regressive and redundant.
Bereft of its essence (and therefore its life), let us linger on the mortal analogy and imagine a mortuary. This mortuary is arrayed with metal drawers containing bodies: a few drawers are open. If we look at the corpses prostrate in these drawers, we begin to recognise them – there is Baudrillard, whose drawer is adjacent to another containing a perfect replica of Baudrillard. Barthes is on the left and one shelf down, holding a photograph of himself in his present state, whilst Wittgenstein has a ghostly speech bubble protruding from his mouth (the speech bubble is blank). This is how art critics would perceive this morgue, whilst the linguist would see something different (for example, Wittgenstein would have a children’s game of language with him in the drawer, whilst Barthes would be accompanied by a television set broadcasting nothing but advertisements). If a thing is perceived correctly in a certain context by an individual working within that context, is that essence not then of equal value to the perceptions of another viewer considering the same object from another? If a Duchampian shovel can be removed from the context of the gardener and transplanted into a more academic field of semiotics (in that instance, the art gallery), cannot then an art object be appreciated with as much merit in a garden for its ornamental or utilitarian ends? Critical Theory offers us various vantage points from which to consider, not only aesthetics, but the essence of the art object – that often-elusive substance which imbues an artist’s wares with perceived value. If Contemporary Art ever hopes to rid itself of its Promethean bondage and exist with any value in a world outside of its own, then artists and critics alike must ever – like John M Armleder – strive to operate lines of flight (a further term coined by Deleuze and Guattari which refers to a disregard of disciplinary applications and cut through any and all barriers which segregate thought in order to fully appreciate its essence).
We are arguably living in an age in which Derrida’s free play of signs and signifiers is the cultural currency. Few are the objects which remain fixed to a semantic field, yet a lack of semiotic boundaries and demarcations within society and culture themselves, do we not now have to begin to question the old, Modernist notions of value within Contemporary Art? Lines of flight flow through all that we behold and touch and, as the Ōtsuka Museum has shown us, nothing is ever around to touch forever.

 

References

  1. Derrida, J. and Bass, A. (2001) Writing and difference. London: Taylor & Francis.
  2. Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. and Massumi, B. (2013) A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
  3. Simmel, G. (1958) Two essays. The Hudson Review, 11(3), p. 371. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3848614.
  4. Baudrillard, J. (2005) The conspiracy of art: Manifestos, texts, interviews (Semiotext(e) / foreign agents). New York: Semiotexte/Smart Art.
  5. Uhland, L., Platt, A. and Ludwig, P. (2010) The poems. United States: Nabu Press.

Regarding the Ceremony of Art Presentation

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The Ceremony of Art Presentation

 

Being the fourth dimension of meaning somewhere between Sign, Signified and Signifier.

 

If the sign is the art piece, the signified is the referent and the signified the meaning, there is an extra layer of meaning between Sign and Signified which takes place during artistic presentation.  To wit, the meaning in Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting is not on the canvas itself, nor was it during the painting’s creation, but rather lies in its presentation as an absence.  This absence is seen often throughout the Twentieth-Century in response to Wittgensteinian silence, which in itself is demonstrated in Ludwig Uhland’s Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn whereby the referent in the poem is the cutting, or sprig.  The fact that the meaning of the sprig is never revealed is where Wittgenstein find’s the essence of philosophical truth.  Rather than some mystical, ineffable essence, absence is, linguistically, that which has the most power in being shown rather than said.

 

Count Eberhard Rustle-Beard,

From Württemberg’s fair land,

On holy errand steer’d

To Palestina’s strand.

 

The while he slowly rode

Along a woodland way;

He cut from the hawthorn bush

A little fresh green spray.

 

Then in his iron helm

The little sprig he plac’d;

And bore it in the wars,

And over the ocean waste.

 

And when he reach’d his home;

He plac’d it in the earth;

Where little leaves and buds

The gentle Spring call’d forth.

 

He went each year to it,

The Count so brave and true;

And overjoy’d was he

To witness how it grew.

 

The Count was worn with age

The sprig became a tree;

‘Neath which the old man oft

Would sit in reverie.

 

The branching arch so high,

Whose whisper is so bland,

Reminds him of the past

And Palestina’s strand.

 

In Abstract Expressionism this thinking is key to an understanding of the Modernist urge to achieve the inexpressible, and we also see it in Conceptual Art as it directs our attention away from formal qualities and focuses instead on that which is absent from the work.

 

The question is not lost on me why I do not practice more of what I preach, and the answers range from the self-deprecating to the absurd.  In the first instance, it must be said that absence is perhaps the single most fragile artistic material, and must be used only by skilled hands.  My hands are not as skilled as I would prefer.  Secondly, absence is also absolute faith in the unspoken, and here matters become slightly unstuck.  Absolute faith and truth are in no way the same thing, although both are subject to interpretation – particularly in an age which distorts the fundamentals of both physical and abstract fact.  That which remains unsaid naturally resists Propositional Logic, and as such is often misunderstood for a negation whereas the thing (again abstract or actual) in actuality stands for something which must be preserved from contemporaneity.  The grief of a fallen soldier’s mother during the First World War cannot be equated with the grief of a teenage heartbreak.  I resist utilisation of the absence because my work is not subjective, nor does it focus on my (or anyone else’s) inner feelings.

No Job for a Grown Man (part seven) – The Compatibility of Simple and Complex Machines

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…when one writes, the only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work.” These words, written by Deleuze and Guattari in the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, are key to an understanding of how many contemporary artists – myself included – manipulate the abstract fabric of their works into a cohesion. Artists are haecceities (again using the term as described in A Thousand Plateaus), just as every human being is a haecceity, or a sum of all the events and forces involved in an organism, object or event. Certainly, artists tend to be focal haecceities, but individual haeccaeities all the same, and therefore subject to every singular element and event which led to the individual making x or y decision concerning z art piece. How have I incorporated influences such as The Fall, Alfred Jarry, Louis Althusser or European cinema into my work in the past?  I negotiated a method of plugging these separate machines into the art machine, to varying degrees of success (which in itself was subject to the laws of the haecceity). The side of the machine that faces the strata is where all of the external machines are plugged into, and its obverse side – the side which is observed by the audience – is smooth (or as smooth as the artist is able to make the machine). Deleuze and Guattari discuss Kafka and his incredible bureaucratic machine. Kafka himself was a haecceity governed by the strict laws of bureaucracy, now inexorably and miserably linked to its dehumanising values and de-humanised social necessity. The bleak world of Kafka has ever been – and continues to be – a rich source of inspiration for the artist. Fitting, that in a contemporary age subject to fears not only of our employability and stability, but of our very survival, that we still see the relevance in that bureaucratic machine of a century ago begin to erode away at the humanity of its subjects. As such, Kafka has remained relevant throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, because that bureaucratic coding has never altered: on the contrary, it has mutated and made itself more sophisticated; it has mimicked our human behaviour; it has presented itself to us in our own image. It can be argued that some species of symbiosis has taken place, whereby we have become bureaucratic beings (linguistically, at least) and bureaucracy has become more humanised (obviously, this latter is far from the case, yet the maintainers of the bureaucratic machine have understood that, for the machine to survive, it was necessary to make the machine more human-like). Certain machines – like Kafka’s bureaucratic machine – have long-lasting compatibility with the art machine, as has been illustrated. There are however an infinity of machines, varying in size and form, which are ever-present in orbit around our plane of existence. Some of these machines are more difficult to plug into the art machine, and have only a limited time in which they are compatible. Political art tends to suffer from this limitation of compatibility because not all political matters persist longer than a decade-or-two. The trick is always in ratiocinating what larger machine governs the smaller machines, or what greater social factors must be in place for the smaller political machines to function. It has long been an ambition of mine to find a way of re-formatting (particularly resistant to re-formatting) literature and presenting it as art. I have had my eye of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman for a number of years now, and I think that this initially came about because of the parallels one can draw between the protagonist struggling financially to complete his critical work on the fictional scholar de Selby. Any art student can certainly appreciate the protagonist’s frustration at being unable to complete a work of subjective importance due to a factor as fleeting and arbitrary as money. It is not just for this reason, though, that The Third Policeman is ripe for re-presentation: the book is full of that rich absurdist humour which also draws me to Alfred Jarry, Steve Aylett and Sergio Caballero. This absurdist literary machine, to work in this context, must be compatible with the particulars of my current art machine, and that is where the real work lies.

No Job for a Grown Man (part four) – The Archetype and the Simulacra

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One very interesting development this year has been Alfie’s increased enthusiasm (or obsession with) Star Wars.  This is no great revelation in and of itself, given that the boy is rapidly approaching six years old and the perfect age to engage with it, but what interests me is the way in which this has affected me, and to some extent takes my work and thought full-circle to four years ago when I combined painting and printing to create a piece which illustrated how “the son becomes father to the man” (or, read another way, how the child inevitably outwits the adult).  At the time I considered this work to be somewhat jejune artistic fodder, relying on an archetypal parent-child dyad, but as this co-relation grows in age and maturity, I cannot ignore how inescapable this has always – to some extent – been for myself and my output.  Of particular piquancy is the way in which Alfie is now, to all intents and purposes and as a textbook Lacanian model, an exact mirror image of myself at his age:  I was Alfie’s age in 1983, and therefore Star Wars is (without wishing myself at the mercy of this cretinous contemporary bombast, yet somehow compelled to align myself with it) “encoded into my DNA.”  The same is now becoming true with my Son, as Freud, Lacan, Berne and countless other critical theorists have postulated.  It is all too easy to dismiss popular culture such as Star Wars as “for children” or a Greenbergian “low,” however the strength of its staying power lies in its universalising all of those psychoanalytic concepts and ideological counter-points which critical theorists have debated and argued over for centuries.  Does it simplify said concepts?  Naturally.  Does it trivialise them?  Not at all.  Rather it, contextualises them in much the same way as Greek Myth and literature have done since we first started telling one another stories.  Particularly revealing is its emphasis on Father-Son relations and its repetitive looping-back on its own themes, which has in no small way found its real-world counterpart in the way in which it now spans multiple generations.  There is a strong correlation between Alfie, who still sees the world through innocence, and myself as I come to understand that the child is still very much active in me and recognise the power of the archetype in Star Wars.  For all that I love the cinematic beauty found in the works of Tarkovsky, Tarr, Jodorowsky and Kurosawa, it is without doubt Star Wars which still unifies the 38-year-old me of today with the five-year-old me of 1983.

It would be strange for a child to love Star Wars and not want a part of its own galaxy of merchandise.  Alfie’s passion for action figures has grown with his passion for the franchise, and here I find my own banal pun on the term “Plastic Arts.”  There is something in the way that these toys have become more sculpturally sophisticated over the years – the figures I played with a small boy were never as detailed or articulated as the figures of today.  There is a demand for accuracy and perfect replication in today’s action figures which runs parallel to the “more real than real” contrivances of the cinematic screen.  The connection between this modern phenomenon and the writings of Baudrillard are so obvious as to make that connection here seem somewhat obtuse, however that connection cannot be ignored.  The simulacrum now precedes the original just as the map precedes the territory, making the sophisticated model almost indistinguishable from the person, object or form it replicates.  In this way, big-budget films (particularly of a fantastical theme) are created in conjunction with the merchandising market, and presented to the public as a bifurcated tree: two branches of the same organism.  This phenomenon is widespread and is by no means exclusive to the film or toy industries, as clothing now strives to emulate “authenticity,” music is deliberately made to emulate production values of the past, and even food is branded to appear as though a return to arcane values.  Nostalgia has a significant price value in a schizophrenic age.