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.

Response to 2.1 (Charlene Spretnak)


Taney asks, “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?”


This is a huge and fertile question. So much has been discovered in recent years about the dynamic interrelatedness by which humans and the entire physical world are actually structured and actually function that, if a nature-oriented posthumanist aesthetic ever did carry the day, I think just catching up on what we now know about how every entity and every being is creatively engaged at every nanosecond with vast fields of interrelatedness would be part of art education! For starters, artists might find useful Relational Reality (2011), a book in which I present and consider recent discoveries of dynamic interrelatedness in human physiology – how we are inherently affected by our connections with nature and with other people. Finally, the biomechanistic model of the body is being challenged and nudged aside after 300 years by the new findings. We cannot really grasp the implications of the new relational knowledge, though, unless we set ourselves on a learning curve because it is so different from what we learned in our modern schooling.


Since the act of perceiving art (or anything else) is now understood to be dynamic and relational and since a “subject” of a posthumanist art might well be contemplation of nature and cosmos (including us) as unimaginably dynamic and interrelated, what form-subject might by evoked by our new awareness of all the creative and lively complexity? This is a formidable aesthetic challenge that could never be exhausted.

2.1-2.3 More Crumbling Dualities (Charles Eisenstein)

In Session 1 the panel has been demolishing key dualities, such as mind/body, reason/emotion, and human/nature. That is not to say that these dualities shed no light on the human being, but that when reified they become polarizing lenses that filter out the entanglements between them. Now we move on to form/content, as well as two more implicit binaries: in 2.1, that implied in the word “aesthetic,” which for a long time (at least since Kant) has carried connotations of formalism and anti-utilitarianism, and in 2.2, the distinction between symbol and object implied by “meaning.” So I think the panel will probably proceed to dismantle these dualities as well. I’ll start us off: The herbalist-philosopher Stephen Harrod Buhner makes a strong case that the vaunted human uniqueness of the use of symbol is just another anthropocentric conceit. What qualitative difference is there, he asks, between insect pheromones and spoken words? His point is all the more valid when we accept the somatic dimension of cognition. When we can’t isolate cognition in the brain (or nonmaterial mind), then necessarily the distinction between symbol and direct causal agent breaks down as well. This has obvious consequences for the question of meaning in art raised in 2.2. We cannot separate it from the physical impact on the body – which of course depends on the full set of embodied relations referred to in 2.1. Ultimately, the breakdown of these dualities entails the breakdown of the distinction between fine and applied arts, and even the category of art altogether. I’m sure scholars have discussed in exhaustive depth the definitions and undefinability of art, so I’ll end here before I venture too far out of my depth.

Circling Back (Stephanie Grilli)

 Taney asked me to address what I mean when I say that content is multivalent, complex, and expansive. Years ago, I taught an Intro to Art class in which I regaled students with taking a single artwork and re-framing it in multiple contexts and bringing forth multiple aspects and interpretations. After the first grading, a student wrote a letter to the dean of the school complaining that in my lecture I contradicted myself and that I didn’t supply the meaning to be given on the exam. In other classroom situations whenever I had Seurat’s La Grande Jatte on an exam, I could rest assured that almost every student would include that the monkey symbolized infidelity, because this was the one instance in which there was a singular reason for that figure being there. Those encountering the study of art want there to be a handy guidebook that lays out “if you see this, it means x.” The struggle becomes one of getting a student to see the picture as a painting — something made of materials involving choices that could be informed by training, tradition, temperate, and a host of other factors. So while everyday experience requires us to flatten meaning, engaging with a work of art involves an unfolding that can be never-ending (a dilation, as Roland Barthes would have it). While a work of art was born of a conceit at a specific moment in time, it contains more and expands as it becomes the sum total of all the ways it is received, which includes all the various ways in which someone may take content to mean. 

Taney also asks about the somatosensory and unconscious cognitive experience. We may want to circle back. At a time when psychology turned to matters of perception and cognition, artists in the late nineteenth century began to explore ways in which works of art could bypass intellectual operations. Someone like Gauguin explored color in terms of the direct physical impact it had on the body. Associated with his association with Analytical Cubism, Cezanne was actually concerned with trying to portray the “small sensations” experienced before familiar landscapes in the south of, creating complex compositions to comingle what he saw, felt, and knew. One might say that Seurat tried to remove the artist from the picture by devised a system based on contemporary color theory in which a painting might be executed without actually seeing the color, and the units of paint were not expected to come together outside of the perceiving viewer. [Seurat was an anarchist, and the means by which he created his paintings aligned with its philosophy of the individual working in his/her own dignity with other individuals to create society.] Interestingly, each of these artists signaled that something new was going on through comparison to other artworks in similar categories or traditions. Herein it is the form that spoke of something new rather than subject, and it would continue that way for decades to come. The early 20th-century includes many artist groups who believed that it was through form that consciousness could be change to usher in a new utopian world. 

So what happened? Maybe we should look to the sequence of “isms” that collided into each other, as the twentieth century progressed ending in minimalism that left only conceptualism. This was the sixties, and there certainly was a lot of touchy-feely art then, but you could just as well liberate yourself and create the aesthetic experience in your own mind. No one believed form could bring about a revolution anymore, and rather than a vocabulary that could be used to say something new, form could be put in quotation marks. These vocabularies were also co-opted by commercial design. Form still has power, i.e. the power to sell. Maybe even worse, form and the pursuit of new form became associated with the powers-that-be rather than something that could be transcendent. We earned that Abstract Expressionism was used by the US government to show Communist countries just how we valued the individual. Maybe the whole idea of a shared humanity or a shared human experience became suspect. Or maybe it just became too much of a thankless task to teach art students how form can have meaning. 

This morning I happened to read a post by Maria Popova on her website Brainpickings: “Joseph Conrad on Writing and the Role of the Artist.” I wanted to include passages from Conrad here, but it was just too difficult to chose one that is relevant to our discussion.

Reason and emotion: continuing a line of inquiry (Taney Roniger)

In a comment to a recent post by Jon Sakata, Deborah Barlow suggested the following as something the group might like to pursue. Jon’s question was: "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."

Below is the content from that comment thread. Would anyone care to chime in? I do agree that this seems particularly relevant.

Deborah Barlow: More on this please, from anyone.

Taney Roniger: Jon and Deborah, Do you mean that someone from the past -- one of the Enlightenment figures, perhaps -- posited that the reason/feeling opposition is illusory? If so, I'd love to hear more on this. Of course, if you're referring to a contemporary figure that's another story altogether -- and one on which I'd have much to say!

Jon Sakata: Hume-Deleuze?

Taney Roniger: It could well be that Hume and Deleuze made this claim - very interesting. What I had in mind were people like Antonio Damasio, George Lakoff, and Mark Johnson, all of whom have written extensively on this in recent times. What was revelatory for me when I first read Lakoff was the idea that (and he has studied this empirically -- it's not just conjecture) the entire human conceptual apparatus arises from our embodied, sensual contact with the world, and as such consists mostly, if not entirely, of metaphors involving bodily actions. (Jon is of course talking about *feeling,* or emotion, but we seem to have no problem allowing that emotions arise from our embodied being in the world. And if reason is a function of emotion, and emotion is a function of our embodiment, then what I'm saying is similar.) But then when you think about it, how could it be otherwise? Old claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it's not like reason just descended on us from some mysterious celestial source; it had to have been born of the earth, just like everything else about us. And on emotion specifically, Antonio Damasio's claim (again, proven empirically) is that not only are reason and emotion fundamentally connected, but reason is entirely *dependent* upon emotion. To think that all this time we've gotten this so wrong. Another facet of human hubris, I suppose: to assume that things we *wish* were the case are in fact the case. I love what was said earlier about affect being so much more difficult than reason -- so much more difficult to inhabit -- and that rather than owning this difficulty, we ("we") divorced ourselves from it and cast it on to women!

Deborah Barlow: Taney, this is compelling and full of rich veins to explore. Thank you for taking this on. I am also hoping Sarah Robinson will weigh as well. (She did a symposium and subsequent publication on Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design.)

Taney Roniger: Rich indeed! I can make this a separate thread so others will be sure to see it. I do think it calls for some in-depth attention.

Jon Sakata: That sounds like great idea, Taney! Great to finally meet you and really enjoyed today's talk with Christine!