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 4.4. Concerning technology and decentering the human (Jon Sakata)

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...

On the question of human uniqueness: link to an essay by David Abram (Taney Roniger)

In light of the question that's come up several times in our dialogue about the uniqueness of our species, I thought I'd share a brief essay by fellow panelist David Abram that addresses this issue. When I first came across this essay several months ago I found the argument he makes beautifully compelling. Reading it again now, I am no less convinced. I hope you will have a look:

David will be giving a live Zoom talk for us tomorrow (Saturday the 12th) at 4:00pm EST. Although he will be speaking about other matters, I'm sure he would be happy to engage any questions about the essay.

Changing the Subject (Stephanie Grilli)

 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.

A Reflection: Air to Flesh to Biomes to Bones (Jon Sakata)

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/intensive magnitude, and relational dynamism vary radically). 

What is it like to live with, perform, share Berg’s microbial/mineral music via our favored technological tool (and spiritual prosthetic)—the piano? We like to say that it is music that vehicles air through flesh to intimately vitalize and converse ‘with-/in’ biomes and bones...

[...whose biomes and bones we leave unspecified...]

Part of Gunnar Berg’s compositional practice-process-imagination was to draw diagrammatic and pseudo-axonometric ‘figures.’ While less heterogeneous, multi-scalar, ‘difference’ generating, and symmetry-breaking than his music—here are a few (with gratitude to Jens Rossel of the Gunnar Berg Working Group for providing these images):


While I regret having missed Charles’ talk live, it was kewl to see the long dive into the Mandelbrot set and to hear Charles’ deep psychedelic experience with the iterative spell that Benoit’s generative mathematics prospered.

I had the pleasure to sit around the dining table with Benoit a couple times when he and his wife had moved to Cambridge. He clearly was affected by the years of how mathematician peers, the mathematics field, shall we say, came to look beyond him and his work. It was sad. I mentioned to him a recent article I had read detailing the then research and testing going on in France implementing Sierpinski pyramids into sound barrier walls lining highways; how the researches were indebted to his work both for its acoustical application ‘trapping’ sound waves in the labyrinthine scales of self-similarity AND its aesthetic beauty. Fellow diners chimed in about how his work had been applied in a spectrum of other fields and forms outside of his own. He knew of some of these applications (and was directly involved with a few); but certainly, not all of them. And with the latter, it was beautiful to see his curiosity but also critical problematizing animated with such glee and keen inspection to consider the potentials and challenges each application might pose. 

The conversation turned toward the music of Bela Bartok. We discussed Bartok’s self-proclaimed ‘trinity’ of Nature-Science-Music and his fascination with pinecones, sunflowers (his favorite flower), and other bio-forms as well as application of Fibonacci’s ‘iterative-growth’ sequence. The host of these dinners had just finished a spectral analysis of a solo violin work by Bartok revealing how fractality is found from sub-melodic, to phrase, to overall design of the movement. With this, Benoit just sat back, grinned widely, his eyes became globes...

4.7 Is there a role for other species in posthumanist art? (Sarah Robinson)

Perhaps it is a feature of our Western perspectival mentality to want to boil things down to their "true essence" or to delve into the "core" get to the Truth or to be ever on the hunt for the Center. This habit is manifest in the reductive tendencies that keep repeating themselves by substituting different names: "it all comes down to genes," or the nucleus, or the brain, or bacteria and then focusing on that spotlighted aspect of life to find the key to the rest. These habits are so deep-seated that they remain unquestioned. The ubiquitous term "seeing through the lens" of something to understand another thing in its terms, is symptomatic of a mentality that must narrow the world to the circumference of a lens. This kind of mentality cannot deal with, much less understand relationships and interdependencies. Opening to other kinds of life expands the imagination and possibility. Perhaps the center is everywhere, truth is everywhere, intelligence is everywhere in different forms, voices and languages, and immersing our own consciousness in the rhythms of other kinds of consciousness is one way for us to move beyond our narrow perceptual habits.

Paul Valéry wrote, “To the spiritual eyes, the plant presents itself not just as an object of humble passive life, but a strange will to join in a universal weaving.” This strange will to weaving seems like a good way to think beyond the container/contained model. Life does seem to weave. In this spirit, the artist Diana Scherer makes living textiles from plant roots, the architect Niklas Weisel creates vertical textiles that grow food from ugly skyscrapers, the artist/architect Tomás Saraceno collaborates with spiders, who spin three-dimensional webs that cosmologists study for insight into the cosmic web in which our galaxy is held. This strange will to weaving does not concern itself with categories but with connections.