Link to David Abram talk (Taney Roniger)

For our final guest speaker event today we were honored to be joined by cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram. David spoke for an hour and then engaged our panel in a lively discussion for well over another hour.  We all agreed it was the perfect way to cap our penultimate day of dialogue, so I encourage everyone who's been following to watch the video. Questions and comments for David can be posted under this thread. Enjoy!

Link: David Abram talk

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.

Final Guest Speaker Event and Introduction to Session V (Taney Roniger)

As we enter our fifth and final session today, I’m pleased to announce our last guest speaker event. Today at 4:00 pm EST, cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram will be joining us to discuss some of the key issues that have come up over the last week in our dialogue as well as some ideas he’s been thinking about in his own work. While attendance will be limited to symposium panelists only, a link to the talk will be made available here shortly after the event’s conclusion. Any reader comments or questions for David can be posted under that link; I’m sure there will be much to discuss after our conversation!

For panelists: David Abram talk: Saturday, December 12th, 4 - 6pm EST

For Readers: Please check back this evening for a link to the talk


Session V
Art Beyond Art: Reimagining Aesthetic Form as a Cultural Force 
Saturday, December 12 – Sunday, December 13 

In the face of the radical changes that the next few decades are sure to bring – not least among them the fallout from whatever we do, or do not do, about climate change – art made by and for an elite insider group is becoming increasingly untenable. In this final session we will consider ways in which aesthetic form might operate in the larger culture to sow the kinds of values we have been discussing in this symposium. 

 5.1     Does the emerging shift away from human exceptionalism open up new possibilities for art’s role in culture? In what ways can we imagine art facilitating – or indeed challenging – the larger cultural shifts underway? 

 5.2     In what ways might a posthumanist art change the way art is taught, discussed, and written about? Can we imagine a way of teaching, speaking, and writing about art that deprioritizes the intentions or biographical narrative of the individual maker? 

 5.3     Can a new understanding of aesthetic form facilitate what Rebekah Sheldon has called choradic reading, a new trend in scholarship that incorporates embodied interactions into the transmission of ideas? 

 5.4     Nora Bateson has speculated that the future will be founded “in the logic of affect,” meaning that the how of how knowledge is conveyed – the tone of an article, the shape of the language – will become valued as a kind of knowledge in itself. Can we imagine ways in which visual art might participate in this burgeoning awareness of the power of form? 

 5.5     The environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht has proposed the word symbiocene for the geological era we are entering as we part ways with the anthropocene. In keeping with the word’s prefix, in what ways might visual form help encourage a sense of interpersonal, interspecies, and intercultural cohesion? 

 5.6     How has the pandemic changed how we think about and experience art, and do we anticipate that some of these changes will be permanent?

On Technology and Contemporary Art (Arthur Whitman)

Taking off from Jon's post in response to 4.4: some disorderly thoughts of my own on the role of technology in contemporary life and contemporary art.

I'm not familiar with McLuhan's account of "amputation" but I'd be more inclined to say that new technologies create attenuations or displacements as well as amplification of ability (and desire) rather than the kind of absolute loss that his metaphor seems to imply. We can, at least in many cases, still recover something of the older ways of doing things. "Old media" tend to stay with us, though they may seem to some to lose their "relevance."

I think that while the use of tools and artifacts is common to many animal species, homo sapiens has taken this to an extreme. This has both advantages and disadvantages; these are hopelessly entwined and we have to face both. Short of a global apocalypse (though that is certainly imaginable), we are caught up in technology and technological society. As Jon suggests, humor and absurdism are a big help.

I just came across an old essay, "On Transcribing and Superliteracy," by the Darwinian aesthetician Ellen Dissanayake, in which she offers a humorous reflection on her "day job" as a transcriptionist as a means of reflecting on the differences between oral and literate cultures and the ways hyperliteracy has distorted contemporary literary and language theory. Some of her language from the article also appears in her wonderful 1992 book Homo Aestheticus, which offers a "species-centric" view of art as a unique human adaption. I'm on the fence about the art as uniquely human (it depends, as I said earlier, on how one defines art--a tricky question for certain). I'd have to revisit her ideas at greater length but I think they are worth taking seriously in the light of questions being raised in this discussion. (As an evolutionary thinker, she is, of course, well-informed about the deep continuity between humans and other animals. But perhaps she is still too much a "humanist.")

Writing, painting, traditional musical instruments--these are all technologies too, with their associated gains and losses (though mostly gains, or so one would like to think). Concerning computers (briefly discussed by Dissanayake as writing tools, interestingly enough, from the perspective of 1990), I think they are a perfectly legitimate means for making art. Hopefully it's not a mere prejudice, based on my background as a painting student, nor sheer backwardness, to suggest that more traditional artistic media have a special role today in offering a counterweight to the effusions of our digital culture. If memory serves (I don't have the book on me), philosopher Paul Crowther concludes his chapter on digital art in his The Phenomenology of the Visual Arts by affirming the primal necessity of painting and other established artforms. These connect (and reconnect us) to our bodies and our senses in ways that images on a screen--even virtual reality immersion--cannot.