More on Decentering (Werner Sun)

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.


Karen Fitzgerald said...

That's the stickler, then. On their own terms.
I'm not wishing for a wider systemic, evaluative "system". We've had enough of that.
What "their own terms" implies is a deep understanding of a variety of systemic thoughts/constructs/ideational definitives. In other words, deep education.
For me, that is the main challenge of bringing my work to the public sphere. In the general realm, not everyone is on the same footing with "deep education". Not everyone knows the finer distinctions between imagination and creativity, or, reductionist thinking / cognition.
And so the decentering spools out across parallel worlds: the tight academic circles of generative thinking to the wider realms of preparing young people to actively, passionately, enthusiastically, and imaginatively participate in a (new) post-humanist world view. This is an inherently chaotic system. It mirrors my own painting process: using flow methods where I cannot control what the paint is doing, I actively work with "chance". (Now, there's a word that might need some unpacking!) Same, same with the dissemination process of "new" thinking into the realms of activation: schooling going all the way down to those people shaping the 2 year-olds, 3year-olds, and on up. Our current system of public education is so focused on some sort of (mythical) bench-mark standardization for basic skills that it totally obliterates any attention to the sensate human souls present in each classroom. My sense is that this construct is something each of us needs to engage in some way: to foster the excitement that a post-humanist "world-view" might allow, as well as all the political, economic, social, and social-justice work to be done to embrace the newness we are all so excited about. It's a round world: it's all connected.

Werner Sun said...

Thanks very much for your comment, Karen. I agree with you. What I meant by "on their own terms" is that the artwork should be evaluated without preconceived notions, solely on its ability to connect with the viewer, and not graded on its adherence to someone's agenda (least of all the artist's). The cognitive process I described is what I aspire to in my studio. Ideally, viewers would not need to know anything about my process to appreciate my work.

And yes, seeing with our entire bodies is sadly a lost art.

Taney Roniger said...

What a great comment, Karen -- thank you for that. And you make many good points here too, Werner. The point has been raised that we really ought not be prescribing certain forms and practices and proscribing others, and I agree. But the problem is that the art world is so locked inside its trends. While we can't legislate what artists should or shouldn't make, I think what we can do is begin to think, speak, and write about art differently. Just as an experiment, I've always been tempted to write an exhibition review that elides not just all mention of the artist's ideas but also any mention of the artist herself! What would it be like to just encounter the objects as things with their own agency -- their own, if you will, interiority -- and to respond in like language? I'm thinking here of a use of language that honors the formal integrity of the words themselves and that uses those words to evoke the rhythms of what's being described. Perhaps something like this approach, more than any particular forms or materials, is what might make posthumanist art distinct from what has preceded it.

Werner Sun said...

You're onto something here, Taney! This organic approach makes a lot of sense to me, and it's probably more productive in the long term. In fact, the experiment you suggested might make an interesting group writing project. What if each participant wrote a posthumanist review of a famous work, as an exercise in seeing familiar material differently?

Taney Roniger said...

Werner, you've taken my idea into the realm of viable experiments - thank you! That might be a great idea for a mini-conference -- a more impromptu affair but with its own site. I'm dying to see what people would do with this. My guess the "reviews" become something like poetry.