Response to Daniel re: 1.1 (Charlene Spretnak)

 [Re-posted from the comments under Daniel Hill's response to 1.1 - Moderator]

            Daniel’s defense of humanism is a lot more pleasant to read than Steven Pinker’s relentless cheerleading for mechanistic science. I think, though, that arrogance is not the only problem with the perception in the modern Western mind that we are physically apart from and other than the rest of the natural world. The problem is that modernity has misunderstood so much of what is really going on in the physical world. In its quest to understand the physical world science – and society – struggled through a 300-year lost weekend, limited by humanist, mechanistic blinders. As Carolyn Merchant’s classic study The Death of Nature makes clear, the “new mechanical philosophy,” as the mechanistic worldview was originally called in the Scientific Revolution, was not the only candidate in the air as the medieval worldview was receding into what would come next. Other orientations preserved some of the premodern sense of the potent interrelatedness among all physical matter. Instead, we got the notion of a clockwork universe and the biomechanical model of the body. The field of physics began to self-correct from the mechanistic worldview more then a hundred years ago. Yet even after postmechanistic developments in science such as complexity studies and chaos theory in the 1980s and beyond, human biology, or physiology, was slow to slough off the biomechanistic model – until the 21st century. During the past twenty years, thousands of discoveries of dynamic interrelatedness have been made regarding the human organism (and its embeddedness in the dynamics of nature) that utterly pull the rug out from under the long-standing mechanistic assumptions about how we are structured and how we function. It will be fascinating to see how art will engage with this sea change in our understanding. The supposedly entirely “Autonomous Individual” of Enlightenment thought is actually the human-in-relationship.

Response to Carrie's post on dualism (Jon Sakata)

I wish to tango further with Carrie's wonderful post concerning the (dancer's) body, control and staving off the affective powers of art, Deleuze and (his) expanded notion of 'bodily' experience:

"[I]t is no longer the sound which refers to a landscape, but music develops a sonorous landscape which is internal to it: it was Liszt who set upon this idea of the sonorous landscape, with such an ambiguity that we no longer know if sound refers to an associated landscape or if, on the contrary, a landscape is so interiorized within sound that it [landscape] exists only in it [sound]." - Deleuze, IRCAM lecture

As performer and listener, to not only venture, immerse, terrain such an ambiguous 'landscape' but to pleasure in becoming lost within it. As I sit at the piano to sound and lose coordinates (of self?) in such landscapes this entails making music's materiality - air - take on the affective and non-sonorous natures of felt temperature, humidity, currents and courses of energies, winds, flows, oxygen-full and oxygen-lacking states of an environment beyond pictorial depiction (representation) toward an irretrievable placeness now only of the audible. 

Echoing Klee's creative impossibility: "to render visible forces that are not themselves visible" arrows to render audible forces that are not themselves audible...In textbooks, Liszt is credited with a new musical 'form': the transformation of themes (a theme or themes is/are constantly varied or transformed--melodically, rhythmically, coloristically, affectively, etc.--from section to section so that the entire work takes on a vast range of variety and coherence). Problematic is that his compositional innovation remains confined to the analytic of 'notes,' harmonic structures, orchestration, form as process, to be sure; but the 'impossibilities' of rendering audible the inaudible forces of non-human natures is rarely countenanced, let alone potently realized. Becoming-others in Liszt--including unsettling transformations of 'human'--continues to trouble a field of dissemination hung-up on the primacy of 'form' heavy on conceptualization, realized idea, score-based formalism and formatting.


A couple decades ago, 'air' as primary materiality took on new fascination and problem for me after reading Klossowski's The Baphomet - with this novel's (e)strange(d) characters being a series of 'breaths' (how enthralling to imagine the perplexing 'breath-characters' in various states of bodily-becoming, transmogrification and blasphemous acts): Can one give 'air' flesh? What does it mean to give 'form' to air-become-flesh?


Is there an analog in the visual arts to what I feel is a fundamental misapplication in musical discourse (particularly around Euro-American "classical" music) in which the very musics that are valorized, beloved as representations of "humanity" -- such distinctly different composers as Hildegard, J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms come to mind -- are precisely those that de-centered the 'human' and/or fundamentally situated the 'human' within other registers of cosmic/planetary existence? The way Brahms carried within him (and harnessed/unleashed) from his Op. 1 to his decades in Vienna, the forces and energies of the sea, a becoming-maritime/becoming-nautical that twins Melville: what is 'human' in Brahms--from deepest emotional churns, epic calls and fanfares, to most tender whispers and nostalgic wafts of warmth and longing--seems to me in arc and horizon not the work of the composer popularly dubbed the reactionary, retrograde "Romantic Classicist" (struggling to come to terms with the 'traditional forms' of his forbearers); but rigorously explored and multiplicary expressions from a composer who was enmeshed with the forces of Nature like few others.

1.1 A response to Daniel Hill's posting (Deborah Barlow)

In his posting Daniel Hill wrote, “The way back will take place as artists recognize they are holding the keys to the main commodity of the future: meaning.” 

 I would phrase that differently. From my view, the main commodity of the future is the ability to emphatically embrace not knowing. The humanism we are discussing is closely tied to knowledge, sense-making, meaning. I am more interested in what shows up in the absence of those formalizations. 

 In speaking about her father, Gregory Bateson, Nora Bateson expressed a similar idea: “My father used to say, ‘The new comes out of the random.’ Mutual learning happens in the entropy; we need the confusion to release the new. This dance exists everywhere in nature. It is the swarm of confusion that becomes the grace of the way things come together. The individual paradoxically is both erased and brought to another kind of existence in noticing her participation in a larger context. In the space between the instrument, the musician, the notes, the audience, and silence, the song arrives. It is not in the instrument, nor is it in the musician, nor in the silence. The notes on the page are a map, not a territory. New meanings, new levels of understanding, come pouring into combinations born of our eagerness for contact.” 

 To take the philosophical position that we are essentially adrift in an inexplicable and ineffable state is usually dismissed as facile, lazy and unproductive. There is little respect for mystery as a meaningful part of our lives. And for all the embracing of the other that is evident right now, there still isn’t really a place at the table for the mystic. 

 It is a hard vision to defend and describe in any logical manner. But for many of us (including many artist friends) that’s the place where we keep finding ourselves. “The swarm of confusion that becomes the grace of the way things come together.” That experience can be inclusive or exclusive, small as well as large. But that is an experience I know something about.

Response to 1:1- On Humanism, Descartes' Dictum, and the Sad State of Art (Daniel Hill)

    We humans do seem to be unique in that we are among the few lifeforms on this planet that make tools. Yet our tools have the power to decimate life on the entire planet, whether slowly through environmental devastation and climate change, or quickly with thermonuclear war. As such, we can almost be forgiven for being so self-centered. Crows and octopuses are remarkably intelligent, but they aren’t competing with us for fossil fuels or launching ballistic missiles or cyber-attacks on our governments. That would get our attention!

    I have always considered myself to be a humanist. It is an intuitive thought really- how could one not be a humanist? Afterall, we all are human. My intuitive definition has been one of believing that all humans are inherently equal. This viewpoint is necessarily from within the human sphere and revolves around compassion for the human condition and our fellow humans. Without this, we would fail as a species. In terms of survival, this is another possible reason why we are so self-absorbed as a species. However, we have developed an unsustainable arrogance stemming from the notion of humanity being apart from the natural world.


    I am inclined to see Descartes' dictum and the inferences commonly associated with it as the main culprit in Western thinking for this binary mind vs body and human vs nature perspective. It is quite combative as well- why must there be a versus at all? Both our separateness from nature and our combative streak is likely tied to our inherited tendency for tribalism. Since Descartes' dictum coincided with the great paradigm shift of the scientific enlightenment, which Steven Pinker has demonstrated so thoroughly is indeed working well for most humans, the inference of the separateness of mind and body became almost an unimpeachable truth by association.


    “Science advances by the way of funerals” to paraphrase Max Planck and so it is true for all human advances. Several centuries on, we now are slowly realizing we are a part of the natural world, not outside, not separate. But the current power structures in place have much momentum and must diminish for true change to occur. The art world was no match for combat (since there must be a versus) with the powerful capitalist system that came to rise since the industrial revolution. Instead of being a counterbalance, a critic, it quickly fell under its sway and became synonymous. Sadly, art has now become largely irrelevant and meaningless to the majority of human beings. That art became the trophy of capitalism meant that the market would establish the fashions of aesthetics, which really means few are actually looking at the art. Hence form lost meaning in a way that can be identified by any human being, not just those accepted into the club. The way back will take place as artists recognize they are holding the keys to the main commodity of the future: meaning.


In response to 1.2 on dualism (Carrie Rohman)

          I've been interested in the correlated binaries of mind/body, human/animal, male/female throughout all of my recent work (we acknowledge of course the “impossibility” of these dualisms, alongside their persistent discursive and cultural powers).  In my dance studies courses, I talk with students about why dance is often barely recognized as a legitimate art form, or why it seems so regularly feminized, or considered “lower than”— or a “step-child” of— the arts.  One perhaps too obvious reason is that the body is literally the instrument in dance and choreography, and the body is so material / feminized / animalized as to prove threatening and “dangerous”;  it is something that has to be tamed by concepts, or meaning, in some way.  I think it could be productive to ask whether a similar dynamic has been at play in relation to form in visual art.  Has “the material body of the work of art as perceived through its visual qualities” been— however half-consciously— deemed too lowly, feminine, creatural/material, in contradistinction to the masculinist and humanist “conceptual” apparatus, its “meaning,” so that the material form has come to be something that must be tamed or “made low,” abjected and disavowed, in relation to the work’s meaning or concept.

Secondly, if we take seriously Deleuze’s claim that viewing (or hearing etc.) art is a primarily affective and bodily experience— alongside the idea that the viewer’s conceptualizing or cognitive ascertaining of the “meaning” of an artwork is secondary to that, or post-affective— then we can ask whether the rising prominence of “concept” and its concomitant devaluing of form could be understand as having been a kind of defense against the affective/bodily power of visual art.  Have we wanted the concept to reign because it keeps us more “in control,” more so-called “human” (and masculine) in the face of art, literally in the moment that we interface with artworks.  That is, has telling ourselves that it’s the concept or meaning that matters— that we must search for the “idea” in the moment of engaging with art— staved off or contained the affective powers of art, which actually render us vulnerable, bodily, quivering creatures?  Have we considered it obvious that it is too girly / bodily to value the affective force of a work of art, first and foremost?  Would that make us “just” like animals, somehow?

Moderator's Welcome and Introduction to Session I (Taney Roniger)

Welcome, everyone, to Thingly Affinities! Over the next ten days we will be exploring the implications of ethical posthumanism for the visual arts, with a particular emphasis on how it might alter our perceptions of and attitudes toward aesthetic form. I’m delighted to have gathered such an accomplished and diverse group of panelists for the occasion. Thanks to their generosity, what follows promises to be a compelling and provocative dialogue. Readers are welcome to participate by sending comments or questions as we go along (see sidebar for instructions).  Below is the introduction to Session I along with the questions we’ll be addressing.


Session I  

Goodbye to an Era: Examining the Legacies of Humanism and 20th Century Formalism in Art

Friday, December 4 – Saturday, December 5


Renaissance humanism, the first of the foundational movements that contributed to the emergence of modernity over four centuries, embraced concepts of classical Greek thought, foremost among them dualism (the belief that there is a radical discontinuity between humans and nature, body and mind, self and world) and that “Man is the measure of all things” (Protagoras). The entire history of the Western arts and humanities since the Renaissance unfolded within this humanist orientation.


In many fields within the humanities today, the values of the humanist ideology on which they were founded are being called into question with increasing scrutiny. The idea of the human self as an autonomous subject rightfully presiding over a world of brute objects is giving way to a more a humble worldview in which we are but one being among many. Known as the nonhuman turn, this emerging movement has brought with it much critical reassessment as the various fields examine their complicity in the humanist fallacy.  As a point of departure, this first session aims to inaugurate a similar kind of reckoning within the visual arts.


1.1 In what ways has the ideology of humanism informed our ideas about visual art, both within the art world and in the larger culture?


1.2 Has the humanist habit of conceiving of the world in dualistic terms locked the professional art world into art’s persistent dichotomy of form versus content? How did form – the material embodiment of a work of art as perceived through its visual qualities – come to be considered separate from a work’s meaning or “content”?


1.3 Although formalism (the assertion that art should be considered in terms of its form alone) dominated the art world after the 1940s, the rejection of that stance in recent decades seems to have mutated into a dismissal of form itself, now often seen as retrograde and frivolous (“empty formalism,” “mere formalism,” “zombie formalism”), with content, or concept, given artistic primacy. To what can we attribute this conflating of doctrinaire formalism with form per se, and are the forces that led to it still influential?


1.4 The legacy of Clement Greenberg-style formalism, which shaped attitudes about art for decades with its denial of content and insistence on art’s autonomy, has left us with ideas about form that artists today find untenable. What is it about Greenbergian formalism specifically that today’s art world finds so objectionable? Is there a link between the ideology of humanism and Greenberg’s conception of form?


1.5 While the deconstructive postmodernism of the 1980s and ‘90s viewed itself as a movement against humanism and modernity, its focus on denying the existence of a fixed human nature and its emphasis on the role of (human) social construction made it in many ways a continuation of the humanist program. How has the legacy of deconstructive postmodernism informed current attitudes about aesthetic form, and what is its relationship to the emergent kind of posthumanist thinking?


1.6 Are there aspects of humanism that we would wish to preserve moving forward, both within art and in the wider culture?