Note to readers: Although our panelists are no longer in conversation on this site, we will continue to welcome comments through the end of the year. Please check back in late December for a link to the full transcript.

Link to first guest speaker event: Discussion with artist Christine Corday (Taney Roniger)

This afternoon we were honored to be joined by Christine Corday, an artist who works with elemental metals to create monumental sculptures. Afterward, our panel engaged her in a lively discussion that touched on many of the points we have covered in our dialogue. Readers are encouraged to post questions and comments for Christine here; she will be checking and I'm sure will be delighted to respond.

Christine Corday artist talk: Thingly Affinities: Christine Corday.

Reading Forms (Stephanie Grilli)

 In 1936, Alfred H. Barr used the term “biomorphic” to describe sculpture for his exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art. The influential founding director of MOMA gave currency to a word first coined by English critic Geoffrey Grigson that means “life forms” to characterize a trend in modern art as exhibited by Hans Arp, Jean Miro, Arshille Gorky, Henry Moore, and others. Believing that science and its instruments allowed us to tap into and connect to a life force, Wassily Kandinsky had amassed a collection of photographs of micro-organisms in which the microscope penetrated beyond the external into “the hidden soul of all things.” For the Surrealists, these liminal and unstable forms provided a formal strategy that were a means of dredging up the unconscious. When Barr created the category biomorphic it was the emotional/psychological counterpart to reason as exemplified by geometric abstraction.

We read forms in relation to other forms. Wanting to make the history of art a discipline approaching science, Heinrich W├Âlfflin devised a system of analyzing art with five opposed formal modes: linear/painterly, plane/recession/closed/open, multiplicity/unity, absolute clarity/relative clarity. Published in 1915, his Principles of Art History has served as the underlying premise for formal analysis ever since — “compare and contrast.” [Erwin Panofsky supplied the analysis of narrative and symbolic content with the study of iconography and iconology.] Barr’s distinction between curvilinear as intuitive and hard-edged as cerebral persists. We can unpack why that might be the case in terms of their associations. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points and speaks of calculation and no-nonsense efficiency. Whereas a curved line meanders and is more playful. Yet a curved line in a field of straight lines has a different affect than one among many. The meaning of any individual form is felt or understood in context within the closed system of the language of art. 

Can an artist today can do anything more than use the elements of this language to stand for or represent a new concept? Can an artist “advance a new understanding of form” that takes us “out of art, into the world beyond us?” When Kandinsky valorized photomicrography, he applied his mystical purpose of unveiling or making visible. When an artist such as Tanguy populated worlds with biomorphic forms, he created the unease of a dreamscape with Freudian hints. An artist today creates meaning working with or against all that has been visually expressed before. I have written about the pteropod sculpture of Cornelia Kubler Kavanaugh, who speaks of the warming of the oceans and the tragic fate of these creatures at the bottom of the oceanic food chain with biomorphic forms that evoke pathos rather than whimsy. She took the language of art to something about the fragility of our ecosystem as now understood through systems relations. It seems to me that reclaiming form involves recognizing that form is content but that content is multivalent, complex, and expansive.

For the past few years, I have been interested in luminescence in contemporary painting. Since I first noticed its frequency, its use has only increased. I have considered how it is happening at a time when our world has become more luminous especially as regards backlit digital devices. Certainly the availability of sophisticate pigments allows for artistic exploration, but it certainly doesn’t explain why we would be attracted to them. [Sometimes the effect is achieved through pigment alone, and sometimes it is through contrast.] As a result of this symposium, I have been wondering whether the appeal of these colors is not based in new technology but in our ancient biology. Luminescence in nature does have evolutionary purpose, and is it possible that we are mesmerized by our handheld devices and computer and TV screens because of some sort of physical effect or wiring of our nervous system. [Note to self.]  That would suggest that this new quality of color is implicit in the body and doesn’t represent in the way a biomorphic shape would. So perhaps it is possible to connect with the world outside of ourselves in a new way. And yet…each of the artists using this type of color is using it for their individual expression, and it often seems to represent some sort of alternate or transcendent reality. [Below: Shannon Finley, Spiritual Amnesia]

Response to 2.6 (Jon Sakata)

oooooooooFragmentsoofopromiscuityooCredoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooWhatoooareoootheoooooimplicationsoofoooooooMargulisoooooooooandoooooSagan’sooooooooooooooresearchooooandoooooooowritingsoooooooooooooooooooooooooconcerningooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooobacterialooooooomnisexualityooooooootooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooWhenooooooooIooooooworkedoooowithooooooCageoooooooooheooooosaidoooooooooalterityoowasoohisoooooooooooooooooooooooooidentityooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooioooooooooooGuattarioooooheldooooothatoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooomutationooowasoooohisooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo“We are each, at minimum, equal parts bacteria cells to human cells, and more likely, something on the order of a 3:1 outnumbering by the bacterial...and the bacterial and human populations within us are undergoing constant change, multiplication and death.”ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo“Lifeoooooisoooobacterial”oooooooooooooooooocoooooooooorooooooooooooooooooeoooooooooooooooooooooooooooodoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

Session II: The View from Today (Taney Roniger)

From the identification of form with the creatural and feminine all the way to Whitehead, the verbing of form, and the origins, original intentions, and valuable dimensions of humanism: the ground covered over the last few days has been as expansive as it has been rich. Although today brings with it a new set of questions, panelists are encouraged to further pursue any issues raised in Session I that beg deeper exploration. Below is the introduction to Session II along with some new points to consider.

Session II

The View from Today: Rebuilding Foundations

Sunday, December 6 – Monday, December 7


In light of new understandings in the sciences about the intelligence of the human body and the shift toward posthumanist ontologies in contemporary philosophy (the various new materialisms, ecophilosophy, relational ontology), art is being called upon to revise some of its longstanding assumptions. In this session we will explore how posthumanist thinking in other fields can help us reconceive the nature of aesthetic form, the form/content dichotomy, and how form acts on the human body.



2.1 If the human organism is now understood to be part of a complex web of biological, ecological, and cosmological relations, can aesthetic form be reimagined as a means by which we engage with that larger complexity?


2.2 Given recent advances in cognitive science that have brought to light the emotional and somatic underpinnings of human reason, can meaning in art be reconstrued so that it includes more than just discursive meaning?


2.3 With those same advances suggesting the inseparability of the senses from cognition, can we retire once and for all the form/content dichotomy? Can we advance a new understanding of form that expands the term to enfold content within it – a distinctly anti-Greenbergian kind of form that takes us out of ourselves, out of art, and into the world beyond us?


2.4 If visual perception is now understood to be something we do with our entire bodies, how does visual form act on the body of the viewer?


2.5 If the perception of form can be considered an act of cognition, what is the nature of this kind of thinking?


2.6 Given posthumanism’s ecological understanding of the self, can we conceive of a new generation of identity art (the current trend that focuses on the racial and gender identity of the artist) that would reflect this more complex and distributed sense of selfhood? Is there a role for form in identity art’s transition away from its fixation on the separate individual?



Response to Charlene re 1.1 (Daniel Hill)

    I have to admit to chuckling when reading your first sentence, for as a fan of Steven Pinker, I must admit his books are not exactly pleasant (or easy) reading! And I was not so much defending humanism as giving my instinctual definition of the word (and probably some readers') and making the distinction between a humanist in regard to within the human sphere as opposed to outside and our current human domination of the planet. Also, to clarify, I did not intend for arrogance to be read entirely as the cause of our separation from nature as much as it is the result. Certainly, it is much more complex than that, as you indicate. However, at this point our arrogance expressed through the cult of the ego and greed has widened that gap considerably.

    So, this 300-year lost weekend would start around when? My first thought when reading your comment went to the early years of Christianity (although I think you mean more recent) and its control over books/knowledge (primarily classical Greece). This made me think of Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve, which suggests the re-discovery of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things in a German monastery in 1417 might have played a part in sparking the Renaissance. Whereas it is likely to be more complex than that, after reading On the Nature of Things, which lays out the philosophy of Epicurus (341–270 BC), I couldn’t help but be taken a bit with the notion. I also couldn’t help but wonder where we would be if the church had not had such a stranglehold on knowledge. On the Nature of Things struck me as quite refreshing and opposite in many ways to my own Christian upbringing.  I wonder had it, and others, not been suppressed could this mechanistic worldview have been avoided? Or did it contribute? Have you read the Greenblatt book and if so, I would love to hear your take? I am curious also about these other worldviews that were present along with the mechanistic one and will get the Carolyn Merchant book you mention. Also, you write: “The supposedly entirely “Autonomous Individual” of Enlightenment thought is actually the human-in-relationship.” By human-in-relationship do you mean a relationship with the natural world? I see you have written another post regarding Humanism which I look forward to reading next.

Response to Sarah’s 1.6 and thinking with Whitehead (Jon Sakata)

Whitehead’s view elsewhere that the universe is “a field of force—or, in other words, a field of incessant activity” not only undergirds Sarah’s  crucial vectorization “Form is a verb” but that, I would expand, everything is verb. Life is verb. [To tie with other conversations in Session 1 concerning ‘meaning’ and ‘sense-making’, just would add here sens in French also includes additionally ‘directionality’, this dimension of vectoring form-ing, living, creating.]

I sing Whitehead’s song concerning an undivided Nature-[Hu]Man and there is indeed so much to marvel and affirm in, as Sarah says: “...that what distinguishes humans is the way that we have used culture to radically extend and amplify our capacities.” And yet, I pause how human plasticity and our incomparable capacities have brought us — humans and non-humans — to the brink of planetary ecocide. I don’t know if Whitehead contemplated such a horizon; but (re-)affirming and (re-)activating an incessant culture of care—or even more, to incessantly create embodied (micro-)cultures of caring—feels crucial in confronting and embracing what lies Be-For(e) and With-In.


To keep from humanism-past:

- While there was the French Enlightenment; there was also the daring inflammatory counter-Enlightenment of Johann Georg Hamman (as much I feel little resonance with his polemics).

- Within the French Enlightenment, that Diderot could pen such a flight of delirium as Rameau’s Nephew.

- Who was it that posited that the opposition between reason and feeling is illusory? Rather, that reason is a special form of feeling. In other words, feeling is a continuum inclusive of reason.

Meditating on just these three—the way they each circuit a critical contingency to push back or vector ways of thinking and living otherwise while entangled in far more formidable, prevailing, dominant conditionalities—could it be that I harbor a desire to keep all of humanism-past?

What might enacting erasure of parts of humanism-past portend for an ethical posthumanism-future?

1.6 Aspects of humanism to preserve moving forward (Sarah Robinson)

 1.6    Aspects of humanism to preserve moving forward (Sarah Robinson) 

Building on Arthur Whitman's post, the work of Alfred North Whitehead is really helpful in the question of which aspects we wish to preserve moving forward. Whitehead understood humans as implicitly embedded in the continuum of life, a term that envelops nature and culture distinctions. He was not interested in dwelling on the differences between humans and the rest of life, but very matter of factly insisted:  “It is a false dichotomy to think of Nature and Man. Mankind is a factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of Nature.”  And in fact many argue that what distinguishes humans is the way that we have used culture to radically extend and amplify our capacities. It is helpful to remember that culture is rooted in the word, "to care" and was originally used to refer to the conditions of plants--as in agriculture. In this early sense animals and even plants are cultured. Culture shapes biology and vice versa in a moebius strip of influence that cannot be teased apart. The particular symbiosis that took place in the human story of becoming formed a hybrid cognitive repertoire--books, computers, internet--an off-loaded memory system. We now know that the human brain is unexceptional in its basic design, what makes it distinctive is the cultural scaffolding which led to even greater plasticity. Merlin Donald and Michael Tomasello both argue that what started out as initially very gradual, with the invention of the first symbols, accelerated exponentially with the introduction of written artefacts, and in a ratchet-effect has altered not only how we use our biologically-inherited cognitive resources, but has altered our very biology. There is simply no turning back, nor should there be. Thinking along with Whitehead also helps with the discussion of form. Form is a verb. The container/contained model of static form filled with dead matter is deadening and obsolete, and seriously hampers any kind of richer understanding of life. The interactive shaping and symbiotic coupling with technology, that intensified our plasticity are dynamics that cannot be understood in terms of the old hylomorphic model, which is of course why we are all here to imagine another way.