THIS DIALOGUE HAD ENDED
Many thanks to our readers for your contributions to the conversation.
We have been here before. Our questions and concerns have been fertile ground for artists, writers, and thinkers since the eighteenth-century. I suppose one could situate the jumping-off point to be in the post-Lockean world in which the idea that we come to know the world through our senses is established, and along with that a dynamic model of selfhood arises. These coincide with the time in which Art becomes a value in itself, and maybe there is even a connection: Artworks as artworks are a sensory display whether a Chardin still life or a Kandinsky abstraction. Aesthetic coherence and creative subjecthood go hand in hand. [David’s observation of how we need the other to experience ourselves as a unity goes with artworks as well.]
Perhaps there’s an overwhelming aspect to both knowing the world through our senses and the self-as-a-work-of-art that resulted in mechanisms to channel and simplify, and these have become culturally dominant. Think of the old Devo lyric regarding “freedom from choice.” For at least three centuries, artists have been a contravening force to an increasingly one-dimensional society. Influenced by German Idealism, Samuel Taylor Coleridge called for expression that allowed for an ever-expanding consciousness and the dynamic forces out of which the world was constantly becoming. But the Victorian world that emerged that was to become our world was one in which sensationalism stood in place of unfolding revelation and the culture of visibility rested upon appearances, identity, and things. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Thomas Carlyle despaired of “the show and sham of things,” and it seems to be ever so.
In the context of Art as a value in itself, artworks are image and object as a simultaneity. Perhaps these correspond to the dreaded mind/body dualism, but Art allows for mediating elements in which the two aspects comingle, which is form and process. Image is obviously related to imagination. Object is the subject of consciousness as well as manipulation of materials. In both, the visual artist is bringing something into existence and giving shape. As Western culture has evolved dysfunctionally, the craving for imagery and objects has resulted in a proliferation of both, with an oversaturation of images detached from context and from the physical and objects reduced to reified fetishes within a materialist system. How strange that there now exists within the artworld itself a kind of iconoclasm that wants to suppress imagination and mastery (excuse the expression) of materials.
We haven’t really touched on the social, economic, and political forces that would make it so, but I have hinted here as to the psychology need that would make an aestheticizing sensibility untenable in ordinary lives. There is an animal need to make quick assessments and seek simple readings of information. That is why it is all the more essential that we go forward by looking backward. To that end, I suggest that we consider the aesthetic act — whether art-making, art criticism, or art history — one of interpenetration rather than interpretation. Here is where I’d like Mr. Wordsworth to body forth:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not be but gay,
in such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
what wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
While I couldn’t hope to summarize all the rich material that’s been explored here over the last ten days, what I can say is that on the subject of form and posthumanism there remains so much lush, beckoning, untrodden terrain. My hope is that the dialogue we began here will inspire further thinking, feeling, speaking, writing, and -- not least -- aesthetic forming on the subject, and that any seeds we’ve planted will grow in directions none of us can foresee.
Among the many feelings I leave this conference with is a certain reinvigorating optimism. My sense is that there’s a real longing out there -- a longing to recover our sensual immersion in the world, that carnal belonging we traded in for a misguided and moribund mastery. I see this longing in people’s frustration with online life, but more specifically I see it among artists. What I see, hear, feel from us collectively is a deep yearning for all the things that have been banished from art: sensual form, beauty, the sacred, (dare I say it?) love. And as David Abram has pointed out, this reclamation of our creaturely belonging cannot but bring with it an attitude of humility (and is there anything we need more right now than a colossal dose of exactly this?). What if art could serve as an agent of humility by fiercely re-embracing all those exiled qualities? The reinstitution of sensual form, beauty, the sacred, eros: this is exactly what I see in a new posthumanist art, and with this a nudging of the human back into the complex web of relations.
I have many people to thank for the success of this symposium, foremost among them all the panelists, to whom I give a deep bow of gratitude. Thank you all for your passionate engagement, your enormous generosity, and not least your exquisite eloquence in sharing your ideas. I’m truly humbled by you all. I want to give a special thanks to Deborah for her steady infusion of support throughout this project and to Charlene for her astute feedback on my drafts of the session questions. I also want to thank our readers for offering such meaty and provocative comments. And finally, I want to thank my husband, Colin Selleck, for having the patience of Job while I spent so many of our weekends glued to the computer. I pray he’ll still recognize me when I emerge from the cave.
I am posting a link, as I don't have the artist's explicit permission. Scout Dunbar's work, which I've written about on a number of occasions, has a tremendous vitality of form and material. It also points to the continuing currency of abstraction in whatever we would like to call our post-post- era.