Archival inkjet prints and acrylic on board
16” x 51” x 2.5” (overall)
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.
First of all, thank you, Taney, for inviting the visuals today! Greatly appreciated.
During David’s talk – always such a catalyst to seeing more! -- and our discussion afterward, one of the things that came to mind was an observation by the late great cultural historian Theodore Roszak, commenting on an essential premise in Freud’s thinking (the foundation of modern psychology, till the relational turn lately), which, oddly, Freud mentioned only in passing. These two paragraphs from Ted’s seminal/ovular essay “Where Psyche Meets Gaia” in the anthology Ecopsychology (1995), which founded a subfield, are cited on p. 77 in my The Resurgence of the Real. Note: Ted used italics at the beginning of the second paragraph, but they get dropped out in posting here. I’m going to type all this out as a labor of love, Thinglies; I have greatly enjoyed and learned from you all during Taney’s symposium. Bonus: you’ll get to enjoy Ted’s elegant prose style. Here ‘tis:
The preecological science of Freud’s day that became embedded in modern psychological thought preferred hard edges, clear boundaries, and atomistic particularities. It was predicated on the astonishing assumption that the structure of the universe had simply fallen into place by accident in the course of eternity. Accordingly, the psychology of the early twentieth century based its image of sanity on that model. The normally functioning ego was an isolated atom of self-regarding consciousness that had no relational continuity with the physical world around it. As late as 1930, well after the Newtonian worldview had been significantly modified and the very concept of atomic matter had been radically revised, Freud, still a respected figure, could write in one of his most influential theoretical pieces: “Normally, there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of our self, of our own ego. This ego appears as something autonomous and unitary, marked off distinctly from everything else. . . . One comes to learn a procedure by which, through a deliberate direction of one’s sensory activities and through suitable muscular action, one can differentiate between what is internal – what belongs to the ego – and what is external – what emanates from the outer world. In this way one takes the first step towards the introduction of the reality principle which is to dominate future development.” [from Civilization and Its Discontents, Norton, 1961, p. 14]
“One comes to learn a procedure. . . .” These are among the most fateful words that Freud ever wrote. Whatever else has changed in mainstream psychological thought, the role Freud assigned to psychotherapy, that of patrolling the “boundary lines between the ego and the external world,” remained unquestioned in the psychiatric mainstream until the last generation. Moreover, his conviction that the “external world” begins at the surface of the skin continues to pass as common sense in every major school of modern psychology. The “procedure” we teach children for seeing the world this way is the permissible repression of cosmic empathy, a psychic numbing we have labeled “normal.” Even schools of psychotherapy as divergent as humanistic psychology could only think of “self-actualization” as a breakthrough to nothing more than heightened personal awareness. As for the existential therapists, they were prepared to make alienation from the universe the very core of our authentic being.
* * *
CS: It seems to me that the posthumanist turn we’ve been exploring in this symposium necessarily requires that we critically revisit – in our own childhood and in modern socialization in general – that repressive “coming to learn a procedure” by which “we differentiate” our inner reality from the world out there. Our healing, corrective, and compassionate reexamination of that dominate frame of reference opens into a grand liberatory effort, a coming home to the world, from which countless possibilities arise in the arts and all areas.
There's been so much talk over the last ten days about visual form, and while this has been wonderful, it occurs to me that we've seen so few images. I'd like to invite our panelists to post any images they'd like to share on our final day -- their own or those of other artists. Let's close this out with a feast for the senses!
Here's my offering (an installation shot from my recent show Never the Same River):
(click on image to enlarge)
For our final guest speaker event today we were honored to be joined by cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram. David spoke for an hour and then engaged our panel in a lively discussion for well over another hour. We all agreed it was the perfect way to cap our penultimate day of dialogue, so I encourage everyone who's been following to watch the video. Questions and comments for David can be posted under this thread. Enjoy!
Link: David Abram talk
As an artist, I've been absorbing all the thrilling ideas in this symposium and wondering: what does posthumanism look like in practice, and how would we recognize it if we saw it? I think even the skeptics among us agree that we humans have overvalued our own positive qualities and dismissed those of other creatures. But what is the antidote to that kind of self-centered thinking? I suggest that it is not by replacing one dogma with another; it is by working against dogma itself.
For this reason, I am intrigued by Stephanie's previous post re-establishing the self as a focal point and drawing a distinction between self and identity (labels). Recovering sensuality in art is probably best done through the unlabeled self because sensory experience is unavoidably subjective. Perhaps the first step in decentering the human is, paradoxically, to embrace the continuous creative fashioning of self as a reminder that human-ness is not a static concept.
In fashioning ourselves, we should examine our assumptions, and one assumption I'd like to address here is the injunction against reductionism. I do not dispute that reductive thinking is problematic. But I would also claim that it cannot be avoided. Strictly speaking, every fact that we gather and every insight we derive is the result of a reductive act. So, how then do we temper its dehumanizing effects?
Here is one speculative answer inspired by mathematics. In math, as in real life, every line of reasoning takes place within a closed system defined by a set of assumptions. These assumptions tame the complexity of the world by carving it up into bite-sized pieces. Change your assumptions, and your reasoning will follow. For example, all of Euclid's theorems can be derived from five postulates defining a planar geometry. One of these theorems says that the angles of a triangle always sum to exactly 180 degrees. However, if we switch to a spherical geometry, the rules are different, and now the angles of a triangle can sum to more than 180 degrees. These two statements contradict each other, but they are both true, each in their own systems.
Then the question arises: which system should I use here on Earth? The Earth is a sphere (more or less), but for most practical applications (like building a house), I can approximate that sphere as a flat plane. So, for convenience, I will use Euclidean geometry for my calculations. But in the back of my mind, I am always aware that these calculations are ever so slightly wrong because of the imperceptible curvature of the Earth. In other words, it's possible to think in two different systems at the same time, even though we can only operate in one.
And so it is with all types of thinking, not just mathematical. I can think like an artist today, and like a scientist tomorrow. I can see myself as a member of society and also as an autonomous individual. We humans are at one with the universe, and we are a differentiated part of it. As Walt Whitman says, "I contain multitudes."
Note that I am not espousing a postmodernist relativism that rejects all truth. Rather, I am saying that every truth rests on a framework, but the choice of framework is ours to make, in an existentialist manner, constantly and fluidly, from one moment to the next. In other words, maybe one way to decenter the human is not to deny the existence of the human or the existence of the center (because we need it as a reference point), but to unmoor that center from any fixed location.
So, perhaps a posthumanist artist does not work with specific forms or ideas, but starts simply with the assumption of a multivalent self and cultivates a deliberate practice of ever-shifting and-ness. Then, whatever material forms emerge naturally from this practice can be evaluated on their own terms.
Taking off from Jon's post in response to 4.4: some disorderly thoughts of my own on the role of technology in contemporary life and contemporary art.
I'm not familiar with McLuhan's account of "amputation" but I'd be more inclined to say that new technologies create attenuations or displacements as well as amplification of ability (and desire) rather than the kind of absolute loss that his metaphor seems to imply. We can, at least in many cases, still recover something of the older ways of doing things. "Old media" tend to stay with us, though they may seem to some to lose their "relevance."
I think that while the use of tools and artifacts is common to many animal species, homo sapiens has taken this to an extreme. This has both advantages and disadvantages; these are hopelessly entwined and we have to face both. Short of a global apocalypse (though that is certainly imaginable), we are caught up in technology and technological society. As Jon suggests, humor and absurdism are a big help.
I just came across an old essay, "On Transcribing and Superliteracy," by the Darwinian aesthetician Ellen Dissanayake, in which she offers a humorous reflection on her "day job" as a transcriptionist as a means of reflecting on the differences between oral and literate cultures and the ways hyperliteracy has distorted contemporary literary and language theory. Some of her language from the article also appears in her wonderful 1992 book Homo Aestheticus, which offers a "species-centric" view of art as a unique human adaption. I'm on the fence about the art as uniquely human (it depends, as I said earlier, on how one defines art--a tricky question for certain). I'd have to revisit her ideas at greater length but I think they are worth taking seriously in the light of questions being raised in this discussion. (As an evolutionary thinker, she is, of course, well-informed about the deep continuity between humans and other animals. But perhaps she is still too much a "humanist.")
Writing, painting, traditional musical instruments--these are all technologies too, with their associated gains and losses (though mostly gains, or so one would like to think). Concerning computers (briefly discussed by Dissanayake as writing tools, interestingly enough, from the perspective of 1990), I think they are a perfectly legitimate means for making art. Hopefully it's not a mere prejudice, based on my background as a painting student, nor sheer backwardness, to suggest that more traditional artistic media have a special role today in offering a counterweight to the effusions of our digital culture. If memory serves (I don't have the book on me), philosopher Paul Crowther concludes his chapter on digital art in his The Phenomenology of the Visual Arts by affirming the primal necessity of painting and other established artforms. These connect (and reconnect us) to our bodies and our senses in ways that images on a screen--even virtual reality immersion--cannot.
Threading the earlier posts concerning 4E, particularly 'extension,' and Taney's prompt concerning technology and decentering of the human, I'm recalling McLuhan's critical nugget/warning about how each new form of technology (whether a tool or other technological enhancement) brings with it some level, or kind, of compensatory "auto-amputation" (or self-amputation) -- a loss of capacity, ability, faculty, functionality, etc. As my index finger pokes and beaks and swipes the touchscreen to write this post, think of the crude impoverishment of tactility that I'm exercising...[quick, back to the piano!]
With humor and alarm, J. G. Ballard's 'personal computers' entry in his Project for a Glossary of the Twentieth Century also comes to mind: "Perhaps unwisely, the brain is subcontracting many of its core functions, creating a series of branch economies that may one day amalgamate and mount a management buy-out."
In the context of what we've been exploring in this Symposium, McLuhan's "auto-amputation" and Ballard's "subcontracting of functions" raise for me a dark curiosity: if the human species is incessantly committing such amputations and subcontracting (unknowingly, of course) at who knows what rate, then I'm wondering out loud if "decentering the human" may be coming down the pipeline in a way that is less willed action and transformative shift; and more on the lines of blind self-extinguishing and sensorial sewering? Clearly, a very different form of post-humanism.
I'm just beginning to think about this as I write and have no (clear) sense about this; but hopefully others here have been and can share their perspectives on this as I end this improv of a post...
As a university professor, I taught a seminar “The Self as a Work of Art.” Modernist art is usually viewed in light of the search for self-expression, and the premise of the course turned that on its head. The self itself is a modernist concept that came to be around the late 17th century and the models of selfhood that subsequently developed partake of the visual aesthetic at that given time. So it started with John Locke and his tabula rasa alongside William Hogarth’s series “The Rake’s Progress.” The notion of self relies on the creative principle: we shape ourselves in a continual becoming, and the ideas and influences on that process of shaping have changed. Our selves are not fixed perceiving entities like a fixed star in a swirling cosmos, and they are not distinct from our acting upon any other phenomena. “Subject” is another “object.”
My interest in teaching this course was trying to encourage students to become more creative in becoming themselves. Sometimes I ended the course by showing Woody Allen’s film Zelig about a character who was the “human chameleon.” It seemed to me that the vast possibility of selfhood had become an operation of “fashioning after.” The last time I taught the course was before the selfie in which tropes reign supreme. This is not to say that critics did not despair of “hollow men,” “one-dimensional man” or “waxworks” in times gone by. It’s more a matter of the social and cultural factors that diminish the creative principle of selfhood seem to be winning, but perhaps it also aligns with the diminution of the model of self in art-making.
That assertion may seem ridiculous on its face in that the art world seems to be all about identity issues. But I would argue that identity is about something quite different from self precisely because it removes us from the aesthetic. I don’t shape myself. I find my identity, and I find it among the various pre-packaged models available today. Whereas artists in the past may have been the bulwark against an increasingly mechanistic world, many artists and critics would have us abandon the imagination in favor of narrowly defined human taxonomies. Generation creativity implies differentiation, but we have become political/economic entities gathered in a limited number of groupings. It is not the subjective that is to blame for encasing us in our humanness. I suggest that it is subjectivity that can be the vehicle (how’s that word choice?) that can extend our sense of being in the world to ever-widening awareness.
It struck me during Christine Corday’s talk that no matter how much she deferred to a system how much of her self was still present. Even though she abandoned painting as evidence of the artist’s hand, she made any number of choices, and it was those choices that prickled and delighted us. The way out of a solipsistic, narcissistic subjecthood is encountering and entertaining the integrity (in its double meaning) of others in their multiplicity (rocks, trees, birds, bacteria…).
I agree with Arthur and Deborah. There is a distinction between the art that may be getting shows and galleries and artists getting grants and residencies and the art that many artists are making. In running a conversation series for the art community in Denver, I know there is frustration among artists about what decides whether an artist is “relevant’ (there’s another symposium in that word). Years before, I curated a show of contemporary Taos artists, and it was interesting to see such strong, individual work by artists who had chosen to live in an isolated community away from NYC or LA with its own center of gravity and its constant reminder of ongoing human history (Taos Pueblo) in a cosmically resonant setting.
Two years ago, I curated a one-person show in Denver of the paintings of Margaret Pettee Olsen, who happened to begin her creative life as a dancer. Her gestures recall the vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism, but she works with refraction, dissimilar actions and strategies, as well color bars and floaters that partake of boundlessness, and sensation. With reconfiguring planes and light-reflective media, the paintings resist any coherent reading and are insistently perceptually interactive — to use Taney’s phrase, decentering the human.
In our last performance in Denmark, my wife and I had the opportunity to program music by the Danish modernist, Gunnar Berg (1909-1989). What attracted us to his work was how he viscerally enmeshes music with crystallography and bacteriology (inspired particularly by the work of the 19th century scientist Georg Theodor August Gaffky). His vitalist, atonal music is populated with ‘microstructures’ (microscopic sound entities) that seem to eschew any ‘logic’ of organic growth models that previous composers had explored and developed over the past millennium; rather, the microstructures at times spurt forth and spread, and even detonate to unleash, hosts of further startlingly novel, un-anticipatable structures/entities (whose gradient of temporalities, scales of extensivity/complexity/
As readers of my previous post posts will know, I cannot claim to speak on behalf on poshumanism, nor tell what it might dictate for art. That said, I do have great sympathy for the claim, expressed by Taney in her various writings and in her questions for this symposium, that contemporary art must recover the sensual, the expressive, the embodied. While I take it that that is a common goal among the panelists here, I have some perhaps divergent ideas about how best to enable that that reflect my philsophical differences, expressed previously, as well as other personal experience and attitudes.
I am a newspaper art critic, of nearly fifteen years experience, working mostly in the "college town" of Ithaca, NY (hello to Werner Sun, my neighbor, if you're out there!). While academic thought runs deep in my family background and in my ongoing reading, my primary loyalties are to artists working outside of, or in some cases marginal to, academia. Art is not an academic discipline! Without engaging in broad brush condemnations of academic contributions to current thinking on the arts, I propose that most academic commentators on contemporary art are handicapped in understanding and accepting the broad range of what is, in fact, going on. The temptation to interpret and judge the importance of artists and artistic tendencies on the basis of specialized commitments and esoteric (to be unkind) theories is too strong.
Let me recommend that the best way to recover the sensuous immediacy of art is not to dictate, not in the name of supposedly radical and liberatory intellectual theory, what artists ought to be doing. I think rather, we writers and commentators ought to let practicing artists take the lead. And I while do I identify with modernism in the visual arts, I think the old military metaphor of the avant garde is dead, buried. Radical formal or stylistic innovation, while a generative goal back in the day, is no longer the wide open horizon that it used to be. I think most contemporary radicalism in the visual arts is false and that the posture of perennial oppositionality impedes what is genuinely valuable about art-making. So I think we ought to be open, at least in principle, to the whole gamut, rather than trying to stipulate or predict.
At the end of our conversation with Charles Eisenstein yesterday, there was an interesting exchange -- initiated by Wendy and picked up by Jane and Stephanie -- about the inadequacy of conventional English to express the relational and processual nature of agency. I want to bring it up again here because it’s so relevant to the current session.
I’m paraphrasing here, but at issue is the construction X does Y to Z (active subject - active verb - passive object), wherein something is always doing something to something else. This is a problem because it doesn’t allow for the more nuanced fact that subject and object are both active and passive; each acts upon and is influenced by the other, however subtly. Jane brought up the “middle voice” as a compelling solution. As she says in her most recent book, Influx and Efflux, “[The middle voice] designates performances undertaken within a field of activities, rather than decisions of subjects who enter a field either to do something (active voice) or to be acted upon (passive voice).”
Perhaps Wendy, Jane, and Stephanie would like to pursue this further here (and of course I’d also welcome input from other panelists and readers!).
I do think there can be, absolutely, a spiritual dimension to the language of form. Two corresponding experiences during the April pandemic lockdown here in New York City amplified this topic in my mind.
First, I chose to re-visit Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1914) while tucked into my quarantine cocoon (coincidentally I was reminded of the book by Taney). This had been a book of profound influence on me as an undergraduate student and played a significant role in me declaring my concentration of study in the fine arts. That 20-year-old version of me was allured by words such as “spiritual” but after years of reading as much as I could on the topic, I realized the word conjures such a wide variety of definitions that its use has become quite limited. It is useful to get a general idea, but with a realm so necessarily nuanced, I hoped another word would come about. It hasn’t.
Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And as I re-read Kandinsky, if I updated terms to satisfy that definition, the text came alive and indeed still seems vital one hundred and nine years after being written. I had parted with the notion of “spiritual”, taking the concepts and methods of science in its stead. Yet science with all its crowning achievements still leaves us in a world with plenty of room for improvement. We need science to solve problems like the coronavirus. We need art to find meaning. (By that, I mean the type I referred to in an earlier post.) Without the moral compass provided by the arts, the future tools of science create a scenario akin to toddlers playing with blowtorches.
Kandinsky uses the metaphor of an inner world and I find this more apt. Practicing the examined life is a very personal realm where we quietly acknowledge we all have room for improvement. One doesn’t have to look far to see examples of how callous and mean humans can be to each other when inebriated with power, greed, tribalism, and ego. Therefore, we can see that growth within this inner world is an absolute necessity if we as a species hope to navigate the stormy seas of our collective adolescence. The language of abstraction serves as functional vehicle of this inner world. Visual abstraction has the capacity of carrying no temporal, societal baggage and thus possesses the capability of being pure metaphor for those jewels of human experience that are ineffable. Visual abstraction then becomes a mirror for the viewers mind, recording and revealing a symbolic version of our inner world. It can then be examined as a complex web of tendencies, good habits, bad habits, emotions, intellect, etc.
Second was my experiment of making a chalkboard drawing a day during quarantine here in NYC. This proved to be of crucial importance for me during such a stressful and anxious time. For me, the drawings are inner work made visible. The process of their making, and the reflection aided by them, were an anchor for me as my family and I recovered from the virus. Below are the exhibition notes for a video montage of these drawings recently on display and also a link to the montage.
“As the coronavirus tsunami poured through New York City in Spring 2020 and we all hunkered down in the caves of our apartments, it became apparent that short of contracting the virus, successfully coping with the fear and anxiety produced by this extraordinary moment was absolutely essential. We were told to wash our hands, eat well and exercise- but no one mentioned our minds- that most important of elements. As an educator, I tell my students that a practice of seeing and making can benefit them in surprising ways. If such practices are not of indisputable value at a moment such as this, then their place in a future society is truly in peril. No longer able to go my studio and make paintings, I salvaged my kid’s old “Melissa and Doug” chalkboard slated for the garbage in order to make room for our new cramped quarantined existence. In a spark of intuition, I decided upon a daily ritual: I would make a chalkboard drawing a day while in quarantine and post that drawing on social media everyday whether I liked the drawing or not. During one of the most difficult three week periods in memory as my family and I dealt with coronavirus-like symptoms (we later all tested positive for antibodies), this chalkboard ritual emerged as a fundamentally grounding practice which instilled doses of discipline, reflection, and meditation so necessary during this very stressful time.”
Entering the seventh day of our dialogue, it’s become clear to me just how much more there is to be explored on our subject. While there are still four days to go, I’m already entertaining the idea of expanding our conversation in book form. In the meantime, however, I want to thank those readers who’ve offered their comments and to encourage more of the same on any of the material we’ve covered. As always, panelists too are welcome to continue threads from past sessions in addition to considering any new ones that might emerge over the next two days. The introduction to Session IV and its questions are below.
Session IV: Posthumanism Made Flesh: Forging a New Century with a Reoriented Aesthetics
Thursday, December 10 - Friday, December 11
Having laid the groundwork for a new posthumanist aesthetics, in this session we will consider what kinds of embodied forms such an aesthetics might give rise to and how they might be experienced by human (and perhaps nonhuman) bodies.
4.1 Are there certain kinds of aesthetic form that seem especially consonant with posthumanist values, and if so how might our human artifacts better embody them?
4.2 Are there certain materials that seem especially consonant with these values, and if so how can our human-made forms make better use of them?
4.3 The environmentalist Robin Wall Kimmerer has called for a "grammar of animacy" -- a new approach to language that will more accurately reflect the vitality of the natural world. Can something analogous be developed in the visual sphere?
4.4 Given that so much of our contemporary technology is the product of a distinctly humanist agenda, is there a role for technology in an aesthetics oriented toward the decentering of the human?
4.5 If visual perception is no longer reducible to vision alone, and if conceptual thought is no longer separable from the sensorium that gives rise to it, might this mean the erosion of the conventional distinctions between the various artistic disciplines? What might it mean for the tacit hierarchy that places the crafts and decoration beneath the fine arts and design?
4.6 By way of expanding current ideas about spectatorship, can we imagine alternative ways for our species to experience -- or indeed participate in -- aesthetic expression?
4.7 Is there a role for other species in posthumanist art?
This afternoon we were honored to be joined by writer and speaker Charles Eisenstein for a provocative discussion about posthumanism, form, the locus of the sacred, and much more. Charles is the author of numerous books, among them The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, Sacred Economics, and Climate: A New Story. Many of you will know him from his many public speaking events, interviews, podcasts, courses, and discussion groups. What strikes me so much about Charles is his wide-ranging mind and his refreshing sincerity. It was a pleasure to have him engage us in discussion.
See the link below for an unedited version of his talk and the lively conversation among the panel that followed. (Alas, the first two minutes of the video were deleted, but it begins with Charles talking about the distinction between transhumanism and posthumanism. Enjoy!)
Note: I encourage the panelists to post any questions or comments from yesterday's talk in this thread. Charles may be checking in later today, but either way there remains much to be discussed!
I have become really interested in the ineffable in visual — both as a concept and as the ineffable itself. This is due to my being about to see and experience things in artworks to a such a high degree after studying art for fifty years. Maybe I’m slow, but I do sense that what is revealing itself to me is something I’ve achieved. I had a writing gig once that involved selecting artists sixty-five years of age or older and interviewing them. I asked each of them what they knew that they didn’t know when they started making art, and to a person they responded with some variant of realizing they knew nothing. I think the same thing applies to responding to art — that it’s possible to reside in understanding and break through to something not translatable into words, something transcendent.
We seem to agree that the mind/body dualism has had its day, but in the oneness and continuity of mind and body, that which we ascribe to mind can affect the body. This can be a framing of a physical experience or it can be a physical change in the body. If I sat in a chair once and was pushed over by a bully, I might have a different sensation upon seeing a chair than if I once had hot, mad sex in a chair. Emotion isn't something "raw" but an entanglement and learned. The relation of any individual and the physical world may be governed by universal principles but our experience of that relation is far more complicated. Then what do we do when we live in a society that is reductive, needs docile bodies, offers the “quick fix.” Maybe it’s a matter of recognizing the role that art has in teaching us how to feel, to experience being-in-the-world.
We now have access to a great body of works that we can view without attachment to their belief system or doctrine. As an independent art historian, I no longer am attached to the timeline that is typically taught, and I avail myself of how much art is now available online, delighting in artworks that speak to me as artworks. I can’t help but be taken by the limitless variety of what we have been able to come up with essentially are somewhat limited physical materials. One word that hasn’t come up yet in our discussion is “imagination,” and I would like to make that the power of imagination. If we want to consider art in its spiritual or ethical dimension, we are looking to art as something that allows us to experience something larger or greater than ourselves. How do we go through ourselves to get to something other or at least the not-I (to reference Fichte)? Rather than just the physical presence of artworks, there is a will to create that courses through the history of art that brings us with something touching on the divine.
In response to Taney's earlier request to elaborate on the idea of form as a verb.
1. Taney: How does this reconceptualizing change the way we experience art objects and, in your case, architecture? Because although we now know otherwise, our limited sensory apparatus tells us that objects are static -- paintings, chairs, mountains, or whatever: to our bodyminds these things seem utterly unchanging.
For me as an artist, embodiment is a fundamental concept. Despite what a dictionary may or may not inform us about a word or term, we can occasionally (perhaps often?) construct idiosyncratic interpretations. This is even more the case with abstract concepts. When attempting to fit the roundness of tacit knowledge into the square holes of language, an insufficient lexicon is often revealed. Perhaps this is why humans developed the visual language of art in the first place, as a proto language to both discover and express knowledge.
Decades of painting, drawing, and working with sound has led me to think of embodiment or embodied form as follows. Form is a consequence of process; process is the flow of a cognitive state in time. Aesthetic form is a visual artifact of a specific cognitive state. As we all recognize some cognitive states are better than others, hence a hierarchy becomes necessary. The creative mindset appears the gold standard, as solutions to all the problems we have ever solved and all the problems we are yet to solve, are within reach from creativity’s elevated and fruitful vantage. Cognitive states are essentially perspectives from which we have experiences as well as the ability to reflect upon them. Some individuals acquire perspectives that are paradigm shifting. History is replete with these innovators that managed to see the world from a slight, yet crucial shift of perspective. But fertile, creative cognitive states for our personal well-being are equally essential.
I have noticed, when entering a creative cognitive state, frequently it has been catalyzed by a sequence of bodily actions. My paintings require significant body movement as I hover over the surface with a squeeze bottle, carefully dropping a network of thick viscous paint lines one by one to the surface. The emergent form is a resultant of both body architecture moving in time and the cognitive state necessary to perform those actions for hours. The more body actions are encoded and sequenced within a system, the more they become a kind of language. We can think of certain kinds of dance, rituals, yoga, tai chi, or even meditation as kinds of body languages. Systems are valuable for they are not only key to making sense of our myriad and complex experiences, but they also enable complex relationships to be adaptable with a degree of precision.
Neuroscience has shown what we do with our bodies has a consequence in the brain/mind. The body promotes a state of mind, the mind follows and in turn influences the actions of the body. A beneficial feedback loop is formed through an equivalence of mind and body. In this way, we can actually rewire our neural pathways. The resulting aesthetic form then is both embodied as well as an artifact of a creative cognitive state- creating the contextual environment for promoting and nurturing that state's sustained presence. This could be interpreted as a type of metacommunication or a kind of reading between the lines or visual inference promoting the context for specific cognitive states.
Furthering the relevance, raised by Taney and Sarah, of the contemporary cognitive and neuro-sciences to the possibilities of reevaluating the role of form and meaning in art (and the arts): I'd like to put forth the idea of "4E" cognition, recently popular in those fields. The idea, basically, is that human (and animal) thought is embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended. (I'm linking below to a short video by philosopher Shaun Gallagher, which offers a succinct account of each of these intertwined dimensions.)
I can perhaps be forgiven for the naiveté of my speculations here as a non-academic (I trained as a painter and am active as a newspaper art critic). But I think a brief consideration of these "E's" might help clarify some of my misgivings, raised tentatively in an earlier post, concerning the radical critique of humanism being bandied about here. (If we are challenging binaries here, I think the humanism/post-humanism dichotomy is fair game too, especially given the moralistic shadings being offered by some participants.)
The notion of embodiment, shared I think by everyone here, is one that clearly ties us to our creaturely, more-than-human natures. As I wrote earlier, "Our capacities for abstract and deliberative thought are rooted in those for perception and affect." I'd reckon as well that it provides directly for an at least modest human uniqueness (Gallagher, below mentions hands). I think it offers a challenge both to the rationalist-intellectualist view of the radically autonomous ego but also to postmodernist views concerning a radical decentering of self and agency.
Without going into detail, the idea behind embeddedness, enaction, and extension pertain to the fact that thought is an active process that takes place in an ecological setting--which for many species at least, is a socio-cultural as well as a narrowly physical one. We are in of our habitats and milieus. Again, and without wanting to draw a sharp boundary between humans and other animals, I would venture that what is most distinctive about homo sapiens is our elaborate and cumulatively extended cognitive ecology. I believe that this pertains to art as a human practice and I'm willing to argue further that it is not mere chauvinism to say so.
Shaun Gallagher's video Q&A, recommended.