30 April 2021

Karen Kurczynski—Jorn's Artistic Reality

Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn
p. 201—quoting directly a "somewhat humorous" passage of Jorn's:
What an artwork represents is quite insignificant. What the artist believes it represents is also insignificant. The effect the artist wanted to achieve is itself without interest. What the observer believes he sees in the artwork is in itself insignificant. The only thing that means something is the objective and real effect the art has exercised on the observer. That is the artistic reality.
Indeed, and it is a reality that usually cannot be known. We simply are (usually) not in a position to say with precision or certainty what the "real effect" is, and there are as many reasons for this as there are people. Hence also countless efforts (mostly therefore misguided) by all these people to ascertain/establish this reality. Jorn may be joking...but I'm not!

KK continues:
This emphasis on material reality, and what it does to the viewer in the moment of viewing, is the opposite of the romantic-Expressionist idea of truth, which implies a preexisting, hidden inner reality to which the external work corresponds. ...Jorn embraced the "superficial" instead, describing art as an encounter with the unknown in which neither lie nor truth exist. He believed in expression, but he also acknowledged that different viewers could interpret it in diverse ways. Jorn openly invited conflicting interpretations by making humor and irony key elements of his aesthetic. He replaced the truth of authentic expression with the reality of materials, setting in motion a play of interpretation.
The escape from this outmoded (and, I have always thought, strictly figurative) usage of "truth" is indeed urgent. One oft-overlooked reason is hinted at here: this notion of "truth" demands/imposes an opposite, the "lie," thereby forming a righteous binary, with all the attendant pitfalls that come with that way of looking at the world. But the affirmation of an equally fraught conception, the "superficial," seems also like a failure, certainly of rhetoric, perhaps of translation, and indeed also of logic (that is, of the same logic enumerated on immediately preceding pages). This usage is successful only in a strictly culturebound way, since "truth" was thought to be "hidden," ostensibly in the depth rather than the surface of works. That being as it is, seems to me that this "encounter with the unknown" elides not just the truth/lie question but certainly also the surface/depth one as well. If the "objective and real effect" of artworks on observers is in fact the only "artistic reality," then both of those toxic binaries are taken care of rather parsimoniously, not for individuals necessarily but certainly for institutions and dialogue among them. Similarly, the previous except re: "artistic reality" did not indicate at all that Jorn in fact "believed in expression" after all (!!) and also/already in the "play of interpretations." That combination is quite proto-postmodern indeed in both fact and folly; but it probably tells us more about the author than about Jorn: the consistency with which his supposed positions are inconsistent throughout the book is tough to parse any other way. Yet another example in conclusion: there are many ways to "[set] in motion a play of interpretation;" in fact there is practically no way not to, according to the bit on "artistic reality." Why then posit "humor and irony" as especially fertile devices for this purpose? Are both not, in fact, just as profoundly culturebound (especially to references) as any work or subject? (See many prior remarks in this notebook re: detournement.)

[from a notebook, 2018]

Karen Kurczynski—Jorn's Distrust of Photography

Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn
...distrust of the prefabricated image in fact led him [Jorn] at first to dismiss—shortsightedly—the artistic and critical potential of photography. Jorn writes that excessive faith in the progress and objectivity of science leads to the view that photography is the best art form, because it is the most objective and realistic. But there is no objective reality even in science, he argues, since it is always tied to the needs and interests of those who fund it. Rather than make art more objective, Jorn argues for the subjectivity of science. Writing in the late 1940s, he warns of the danger of considering photography a substitute for reality, the equivalent of armchair traveling instead of real experience. Jorn argues that the close connection of photography to reality is precisely what makes it the least artistic. He was unable to see the potential of photography as a creative medium because of its associations with impersonal, mass reproduction. Jorn reductively associated photography with the culture industry... While hopelessly limited for any contemporary understanding of photography, these views were typical of the 1950s. (198)
It seems once again that an opportunity has been missed and an opponent talked past rather than hit where it hurts: is "artistic" or "critical" potential really the issue, or is it rather that both potentials are in fact so shockingly vast in relation to the type of agency required that a certain devolution in the latter respect was now simply inevitable? The vast power of representation had in fact been democratized, and this rather directly and drastically cheapened initiative, intent, vision, subjectivity...it is hard to name an "artistic" or "critical" value that was not cheapened this way; that is, for the abundance of those potentials rather than their lack. Photography, in the moment that it was new, was too easy in proportion to the power inhering in it. This is not a denial that photographic skill exists, but rather that it was now both harder to distinguish from the ordinary and more widely dispersed and rather less scarce. Seems to me that these are material questions susceptible to material validation, whereas I cannot imagine successfully teasing out the objectivity/realism/science question raised here (certainly not only on the broadest of strokes painted here). The "substitute for reality" seems equally absurd on the surface, but I think it ultimately has been materially validated; in this case people can tell the difference but even so don't seem to care about the difference. But even here, the given discussion has suddenly shifted entirely to the consumption side of things; nothing is said about initiative, accessibility, technique, etc. as this pertains to creators, whereas it seems to me that the accounts of Jorn's chosen mediums throughout center around creation rather than reception. Continuing on, the word "impersonal" is used; this also demands that creation and reception both be explicitly accounted for; otherwise the impression is that of reactionary bluster rather than considered critique.
Jorn suggests that abstract art addresses our imagination more directly that the "indirect and superficial" art of photography. He writes that "visual art means first and foremost visual effects, and the most elementary, direct visual art is that which effects our power of imagination by means of colors, forms, and direct visual effects." (198)
Now we're talking! But there is again an unsatisfying, overgeneralized aspect betokening another missed opportunity. Is it photography itself which is "indirect," or is the photograph in fact the intermediary begetting an unduly "indirect" response in the subject? Is the problem in fact that the photograph is so direct (or perhaps simply suggests/imposes this conceit whether or not it is true) that the subject's imagination is subdued not for lack of "direct" stimulation but in fact for (the conceit to/impression of) an overabundance of it, thereby constraining the imagination inside thick walls of information rather than inviting it on an open-ended journey guided only by the occasional signpost? This analysis certainly is available re: representation and reproduction, as against abstraction/nonrepresentation and singularity. We may well read "elementary" as "leaves something to the imagination"; of course it is not just photorealism which fails this prescription precisely where nonrepresentation succeeds, but also language properly construed which fails where non-/pre-/supra-linguistic cognition succeeds. This is indeed a role (dare I moralize and say a Function?!) for abstract art and music; yet that aspiration to utilitarianism hits a snag if the ultimate, final, exalted end product of whatever particular process we are talking about remains representational, photorealistic, linguistic, communicative, etc. Seems that those types of thought are necessary, by definition, for any social intercourse at all, hence serial abstractifying exercises can be only a means, never their own ends, and in fact uniquely vulnerable to the conquering dictates of social ends which are contingent rather than absolute.

[from a notebook, 2018]

Karen Kurczynski—Jorn on Abstraction and Inhumanity

Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn
...this renewed interest in painting [in the 1950s] had an important social function as a profound rejection of what critics perceived as the threatening aspects of the spread of mass-media technologies mostly experienced on a screen. (196)

...cultural critics who contrasted the material specificity of painting as the ultimate medium of sensory engagement to the alienating effects of the mass media, despite the media's own claims to collapse distance into televisual "immediacy." (197)

Jorn's interest in gesture was about singularity itself, meaning not an especially talented individual but rather the volatile presence of a subjectivity at a particular moment or in relation to such a specific image. ... Jorn's emphasis on irreproducible singularity turned its back on the ideas of technological progress that the historical avant-garde had believed in so strongly before the war. (197)

In 1962, Jorn wrote that the great inhumanity of both the camps and the bomb was their dehumanization of people as a mass: [quoting Jorn directly] "The threatening thing about the German concentration camps as well as the American Hiroshima explosion lies in no way in the atrocities, which are no worse than those happening in many other places on earth. The shattering thing is their colossal and blind mass effect that makes humanity more and more valueless." (197)
Here, then, is a dissent from mass-ification but NOT from abstraction per se. This seems more lucid than lumping the two together, since the concurrent use of the A-word to denote both (1) nonmaterial intellectual images, and (2) visual representations skewed to the edge of recognizability, inevitably clouds more than it clarifies; and so here we have an excellent demonstration of just what is NOT abstract about so-called Abstract Painting, i.e. its materiality...or at least one could choose to parse "immediacy" and "singularity" of "gesture" this way. Abstract art is itself; here KK gives an account of a moment in history wherein Jorn and others (Adorno is mentioned) would/could not see television as simply being itself, but rather fixated on its ability to REproduce, and on a "mass" scale. I suppose the theory of Medium as Message would hold that TV is an "immediate" experience of TV itself, not merely an uncanny reproduction of other content. There's really no Right Answer to that disjunction, just different ways of looking. But looking in BOTH cases is passive, so the fact that the painterlies also had powerful theories of collective (NOT mass!) artisthood really ought to be acknowledged as a factor here. It unifies their theory, makes it whole, and supports their claims above. Mass communication technologies would not be democratized for decades yet, hence there was no such thing as active/generative participation in either the medium or the message of the new mass culture. Hence when KK subsequently points to Jorn's own use of some modern reproductive techniques in his own ongoing work, it must be borne in mind that the analogy to television (which is the specific example used above) breaks down over the question of activity/generativity; also (more so yet) over the lack of mass access to the network of TVs. (The network, by the way, seems to have since become both the medium and the message; if Jorn et al failed to see this coming, it was because they didn't have to see it coming to know that anyone could paint but not just anyone could broadcast.) And as for "mak[ing] humanity more and more valueless," few developments have contributed more to that process than the networks by which us humans have been forced to learn how many of us there are and how much we all suck. The media theorists carried the day as soon as the mass- became able to generate media content as easily as they could smear fingerpaint; but this has indeed made everyone more interchangeable, hence "valueless," than ever before, and it has not actually brought us either literally or figuratively closer together.

[from a notebook, 2018]

Karen Kurczynski—Détournement and Sexual Objectification

Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn
p. 186—in an endnote
Baum ["The Sex of the Situationist International", 2008] defends the SI's use of erotic images of women as critical détournements. I would argue that those images fail to accomplish the SI's critical goals, however, because even out of context they continue to function as heterosexist images of the female body as passive object of desire.
Without yet having read Baum's article, I'm predisposed to agree with KK's assessment here. In fact this is quite an excellent test of the theory of détournement which it fails very much because of the exceptionally Spectacular nature of the source material rather than in spite of it. The uniquely loaded question of sexual objectification hence proves less rather than more susceptible to diversion; and in any case, there's nothing stopping the onlooker from simply gawking if that is what they choose or are inclined to do.

There is besides these occasional cameos by objectified women of course plenty of classically male energy baked right into Situationist theory via Debord's fascination with war, his rather direct application of its historical strategies to his practical political projects, and his conception of it as ineluctably two-sided and zero-sum. Hence the feminized, open-ended, festival-esque stagings by Class Wargamers rather soften this aspect of theory to a, debatably, unfaithful degree, though the festival idea was probably more central to Situationist thinking anyway and hence itself poses a possible practical contradiction once the theory is read in a gendered way.

[from a notebook, 2018]

Karen Kurczynski—Jorn: Critique Is Secondary, Creation Is Primary

Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn
...the Lettrists stated in 1953, "Oblivion (l'oubli) is our dominant passion." The original term "oubli" signifies at once forgetting, intoxication, and anonymity. (165)
p. 183—excerpt from Jorn
What one expresses through destruction is critique. Critique is a secondary reaction to something primary which already exists. What one expresses through artistic creation is joy of life. Art is primary action in relation to the unknown. The French have brought critique into the revolutionary plan, but if critique also becomes the purpose of creative art, and the creative artist thus a "specialized worker," whose work should only serve the permanent revolution's permanent consumption, then these Situationists have lost any sympathetic contact with the artists who seek to create a joy of life for its own sake, and drive them precisely into the arms of the power elite, which always controls the destructive instruments that can crush the people down, and which always make sure to have a moral excuse to make it all good and thorough.

[from "a 1964 lecture, after the artists and the SI had split"]
[source="unpublished manuscript" in Jorn Museum archive, KK's translation]

KK continues:
Jorn perceived Debord's SI as going too far, so that its claims to destroy art effectively relinquished art entirely to those in power. This self-marginalization would allow art institutions to take control of the group's historicization by default and perpetuate the very apolitical conception of art that the Situationists wanted to overturn.
A Just Say It moment which unfortunately runs aground on a couple of key points. Jorn merely talks past Debord when he threatens a loss of "sympathetic contact" with artists "who seek to create a joy of life for its own sake;" this is certainly true, but Debord had already put forth a powerful theory justifying this total break with art and centering on the ways in which it is not nearly so easy to give the artists the generous benefit of the doubt that Jorn seems inclined to grant them herein. The notion that they will thereby be driven into the waiting arms of power is also rather farfetched and seems to deny these artists agency in their own political affairs. And of course the concept of expression is problematic for all of the usual reasons. Seems to me that a stronger strategy here would be to eschew any consequentializing and attack Debord where he lives, i.e. take his theory apart. What I think we find thereby is that the Marxist obscurantism has led old Guy to a blanket, total, monolithic, teleological interpretation of the situation, especially vis-a-vis the anticipated thrust from fragmentary to unitary life, which reduces the complexity of the situation beyond the point where such reduction is tenable. There seems little difference between the two when it comes to the more immediate issues: releasing human potential from institutional mediation, and thereby freeing this potential to manifest. Beyond that, it's hard to shake the impression that Debord simply had it out for art whereas Jorn had more invested in it; in absence of this there doesn't seem to be any reason that Jorn's "primary action" and "joy of life" could not be reconciled with Debord's unitary, unalienated existence.

[from a notebook, 2018]

Karen Kurczynski—Jorn's Critique of Functionalism

Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn
Jorn argues, "It is a basic weakness of Functionalism that it cannot tolerate the idea of freely creative art." In its worst iterations, Functionalism tended to celebrate standardization and technology for their own sake, imposing its aesthetic on people in a way reminiscent of the classicism it initially opposed. It became the classicism of the machine age. Just as in classical architecture, Functionalism's claims to the democratic ideals of openness and transparency were belied by the way it mirrored the social exclusions of class society through its impersonal monumentality, celebration of technology, and disdain for people's own irrational desires. (110)
As a complete outsider vis-a-vis "architecture," I am struck here (and this is merely the most comprehensive and best articulated of many similar passage throughout the book) by a sneaking suspicion that the very legitimate causes of "freely creative art," "openness and transparency," "irrational desires," etc. are simply irreconcilable with the practice of architecture as a public infrastructure endeavor. Significant compromises in the areas listed are necessary here, even in what we would call a Small Community. You simply can't make everyone happy nor unleash all of them all at once when it comes to designing and building public infrastructure. Now certainly it is MUCH MORE than mere infrastructure; that aspect of the theory is accurate. But these free and irrational impulses need other outlets, that is outlets without the material, monetary, and political weight of an entire community weighing on them. Definitionally, they will not flourish if asked to bear this weight. I'm not aware of an SI-adjacent theorist who explicitly incorporates and absolute, micro-scale localism into their overall theory, but here is an example where anything less than block-by-block autonomy just won't do (and even city blocks are probably too large to thrive under such anarchy).

As for "impersonal monumentality" and "celebration of technology," which supposedly "mirrored the social exclusions of class society," it is fair to expect the psychogeography of such installations to beget feelings of exclusion, but how much do feelings matter here? Once again, we suddenly seem to have fallen quite a long way from "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent," all the way to "Anyone who builds (or achieves anything at all) at "monumental" scale implicitly "excludes" everyone else, which is what the upper "classes" do explicitly." Seems to me at that point that the Millennial generation hardly invented the snowflake phenomenon! The Function- in Functionalism indicates that if a Monumental structure was open to the public unconditionally, any feelings of exclusion were the feeler's problem rather than the builder's. I have to confess that I also find such feelings absurd; but then perhaps I'm not much of a psychogeographer.

[from a notebook, 2018]

Karen Kurczynski—Aesthetics Make an Appearance

Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn

p. 105—on the Statsgymnasium in Aarhus
Rational, ordered, rectilinear, Apollonian, the building stands for everything Asger Jorn critiqued in architecture: geometries so harmonious and restrained that they became almost lifeless; the aesthetic celebration of structure and engineering that rejects almost anything decorative, organic, or irregular.
Here is a quite curious and loaded usage of "aesthetic;" or perhaps it is the usage of "decorative" in opposition to it which is the curiosity. The implication in any case is clearly of self-referentiality, formalism, and the specialist intellect run amok; that is, of a panoply of traits which I at least would consider to comprise one of the foremost ANTI-aesthetics, or perhaps non-aesthetics, as in that which does not engage with the senses in their basest form. Indeed, it seems (not only here) that the classbound conception of Aesthetics per se has gradually overtaken its literal/historical meaning: the word doesn't just denote the highbrow, it is highbrow; there is then no term left (or not one with wide circulation/currency) for the much simpler (but NOT therefore also Lower) question of sensation, perhaps not even for the sensation-intellect synapse, which is where we NEED this word most. Customarily this interface becomes a brick wall; so it is here, to the extent that a yet larger, more glaring slippage of concepts manifests: "aesthetic" opposed to "decorative."

[from a notebook, 2018]

[Now: this note itself is a hot mess in the usage department. I'm sure it was late after work. But you get the idea.]

Karen Kurczynski—Jorn on Functionalism as Totalitarian

Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn

p. 34—on "collective creativity" and the "open work"
Given the context of Jorn's extra-painterly concerns in the early 1940s, the idea of openness implicit in the indeterminate compositional process also takes on social and political dimensions. Openness to the new would become one of Jorn's central artistic themes. He argues in Held og Hasard that curiosity about the new and unknown is the beginning of all aesthetic activity.
Is this orientation indicative of a moral purpose per se? Only by way of analogy/metaphor/mimesis/poiesis/etc. Where it takes hold at all, it is necessarily only at a distance from so-called Everyday Life, or at least this is so in this case because the result is an artwork. As an artist by vocation and calling, Jorn can model "openness" in the way he goes about his work, but he usually won't succeed in communicating per se to this effect, nor does the fact of his modeling seem likely to get over to much of anyone outside of the social world immediately surrounding art and artists. This is of course all well and good until KK would attach greater pretensions.
Jorn did not intervene to save them; in fact, he writes that the quick and inexpensive painting techniques and temporary lifespan of the murals were important aspects of their meaning. More broadly, the emphasis on the social experience over the finished work exemplified the way the collective practices of Cobra anticipate contemporary Relational aesthetics. Jorn believed that the role of artists was to inspire by example, through their embrace of a creative life, rather than either to create finished works which would only end up decorating the homes of the wealthy, like a painter, or to redesign the everyday lives of the working class, like a modern architect. ... The Bregnerød murals attempted to redefine "painting" from a noun to a verb, considering painting a process of redefining a space, transforming it into something at once more social and more artistic, in a new holistic statement that was simultaneously personal and collective. (83)
All of this begs all of the same questions as do so many later bubblings-up of "Relational aesthetics," itself a rather oxymoronic/contradictory turn of phrase, and most clearly so by the logic of its most vociferous supporters. If "social experience" is paramount, why pursue it through an activity which indeed results in, if not necessarily a "finished" work, certainly some kind of work? Does such a choice of vehicle not indicate that there is something about the process of creation, whether or not this process has clear starting and ending points, which facilitates the specific type of social experience desired? And if so, how could the fate of the work be quite as trivial a matter as such theorists would insist? It seems not merely illogical but actually fully disingenuous to have designated a destination while subsequently insisting that the journey is the priority. Of course who knows what scenarios could arise spontaneously; but as far as both internal logical consistency and empirical resonance, Debord's theory of the supersession of art and its absorption into Life actually seems to me to have quite a bit more going for it. As does, IMHO of course, Modernism writ large, which is perfectly transparent in its internal logic, aims, social role, etc., perhaps without much empirical resonance in the Everyday realm (which is of course intentional).

Needless to say that "inspir[ing] by example" as against "decorating the homes of the wealthy" is rather over-reductive and quite the false dichotomy.
Despite his interest in architectural murals inspired by Léger and Le Corbusier, Jorn rejected the emphasis of those artists on designing a complete socialist environment, which he felt only led to the rationalist plans of Functionalism. He critiqued the notion of design creating a new modernist lifestyle for its technocratic and authoritarian tendency. Jorn argues that, "we need an art that is living, a part of itself," adding that the most useful goal for artists is to attack the artistic establishment that prevents the working classes from understanding their own creative potential. (83)
The terms "technocractic" and "authoritarian" serve to highlight the concealed power differential between the designer and the end user. This much, I think, is worth granting and ruminating on (and possibly even connecting to, say, the current design-driven power dynamic in the Music Production/Distribution sector, where those thought to possess privileged knowledge of packaging methods exert strong gravitational pull on the scarce revenue streams while content (let's understand this usage of that word as a double-usage, as in the classical duality Form-Content AND the internet-oriented sense of a Content Producer) generators are, as they always have been but not always for the same reasons, the last to get paid). All of that having been duly noted, granted, ruminated upon, etc., the concealment of such power dynamics is only sometimes, or only partially, attributable to power's own interests/objectives; in the case of Functionalist design, I would say they are concealed in part because they are unavoidable. It is indeed perfectly accessible to the rhetorical "working classes" to paint murals on the walls of their apartments; it is rather less accessible but not insurmountably so for them to produce and distribute their own sound recordings; but it is scarcely possible for them to design and build the apartment building, the audio editing software, or the Internet themselves; and much more to the point, neither is it necessary for them to do so, unless they experience a Foucauldian level of anxiety over the fact that the specialists in design and construction of each of these items hold, it is true, some modicum of power over them. And so, again having granted the mere fact that such dynamics do in fact exist, it is a long way from there to technocracy and authoritarianism, these sorts of terms representing (or they did before people began throwing them around carelessly) a sort of total-ness of top-down power, complete with mechanisms of accountability which flow in only one direction. Obviously I need to brush up on architectural functionalism, because it seems from a distance that it could not possibly have risen to this level.
...Jorn produced so many more murals in private settings throughout his life; the Kindergarten and Bregnerød house were the exceptions. Unlike the 1930s murals of Le Corbusier, his were meant to inspire in the broadest possible sense, rather than to instruct or to enforce social ideals upon a population. For this reason, the gestural nature of both sets of murals was essential to their message of free expression. In rendering personal expression at a public scale, they broke down the strict opposition of public and private space, countering the ideals of public order inherent in the architecture with a seemingly chaotic organicism. The unprecendented combination of automatic drawing, popular motifs, and dynamic monumental imagery at Bregnerød created an aesthetic tension that suggests the mutual interdependence of collective space and personal expression, the situation Nancy describes as "being singular plural." (84)
So, the Direct Path of "instruct[ion]" is eschewed in favor of "inspir[ation]," ostensibly similar to Eu. Rousseau's opposition of intellectual understanding and emotional realization, of just telling a student the answer versus optimizing conditions for them to arrive at the answer themselves. There is indeed much to be said for this idea, but there's no disputing that it progressively loses its appeal as the scale of interaction is increased, i.e. as the range and quantity of distinct outcomes vis-a-vis individual social agents eventually increase enough to become intractable. Hence if a word as strong as "enforce" is occasionally (or, uh, perhaps all too frequently) appealed to, this reflects the necessity of both reductionism and brute force (hopefully merely of the rhetorical variety) in any mass-/macro-scale communication; these are the techniques which yield tractable outcomes. The theory of "free expression" that is presented here forfeits this tractability in exchange for liberation, but not for progress; or not UNLESS one believes in an exceedingly optimistic human nature which simply needs to be unleashed without being told where to go or what to do. More likely it will go everywhere all at once. Is this a bad thing? Perhaps not, but progress will not be achieved via chaos, which theorists of the latter tell us illustrates a certain Sensitivity to Initial Conditions, which is to say the rich get richer.

Perhaps those of us living now can be thankful that Jorn and others thought to pose an alternative to the comparatively naive First Wave progressivism of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet where we go from here is as unclear as ever: the enforcement-inspiration opposition presented here really only marks out the poles of a spectrum, both of which have well-known flaws and limitations. Having learned this much, we may deploy one or the other strategy and hope to learn more about the strategic deployment of each. It is nonetheless hard to imagine resolving the central problem: you can't tell people what to do, and you can't expect them to figure it out for themselves.

Questions of scale arise more specifically as the passage continues. These muralists "broke down the strict opposition of public and private space" by "rendering personal expression at public scale." Seriously?! Just because this act, for instance, highlights the public/private distinction, displays a certain irreverence for it, invites consideration of its nature and implications, in no way necessarily encompasses as well the fait accompli that is related here. In fact the modifier "public" is a rather strange one to apply to the concept "scale," since both physical and intangible objects of all scales comprise the public sphere. As such, a "personal expression" made "public" can have all manner of implications rather independent of its physical scale. Concealed by this rhetorical maneuver is the potential that such ostensibly well-intentioned public displays of personal work reach various absolute statuses at various absolute increments of physical size (and perhaps also, but not necessarily, "scale"). Hence, the general principle enumerated here is quite suspect, and the specific case of "murals" is not exactly an ideal exemplar. The theory runs aground via the same oversight as in the previous case of "enforcement" versus "inspiration:" the sender of communication (in this case the artist) does not exert perfect control (nor anything approaching it) over its reception by any particular individual, or not unless (to recapitulate the previous issue) a degree of simplification and/or reduction is embraced which artists are generally loathe to even consider (and certainly Jorn's larger oeuvre as related throughout this book would give the impression that this sort of truly populist compromise was not in his vocabulary).

[from a notebook, 2018]

Karen Kurczynski—Jorn on Human Potential

Karen Kurczynski
The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn:
The Avant-Garde Won't Give Up
He [Jorn] believed that expression is a basic human potential that the institutions of art actually deny ordinary people by turning it into the specialty of a few heroic geniuses. (8)
What "institutions of art" "deny" to "ordinary people" is NOT their potential, but rather recognition and resources. If Sunday Painters believe they are entitled to those things simply for being human, then they deserve neither!

As a child of the 1980s who is suitably well-versed in motivational posters, I believe it to be true and prescient that No One Can Make You Feel Inferior Without Your Permission. They ought not, at least, simply by forming insitutions for the pursuit of a common agenda, or not necessarily. Past and present adherents to the doctrine enumerated in this passage hence contradict themselves by seeing institutions as inhibiting potential, since it is recognition that is withheld rather than freedom. Certainly it seems true that mere knowledge of the existence/praxis of recognition does inhibit many amateur artists; but this merely proves (proves!) that recognition is in fact their motive! This is SELF-inhibition!
The SI ultimately considered visual art mere cultural capital with no agency to effect broader social change (a belief that led Jorn to leave the movement). While Jorn's ongoing engagement with such neo-Marxist critiques of the institution of art was one of the driving forces behind Situationist theory, he also remained firmly committed to the idea that art plays a very specific role in society. For Jorn, art fulfilled a basic human need for expression. Yet even as modern art foregrounded personal expression for the first time in history, its institutionalization as a specialized sphere of the social elite cheated the non-artist out of a fundamental aspect of human experience. (10)

...the young and idealistic artists regarded Helhesten's ["Hell-horse," journal published in Denmark from 1941 to 1944 by Jorn and colleagues] activities as a direct intervention in social life, rather than simply an art movement. (27)

Jorn would continue to uphold this view of the avant-garde as an emancipatory force in both art and life, writing in 1949 that, "The purpose of art is first of all moral, and subsequently aesthetic." (27-28)
Oddly, this wording connects the seemingly new, proto-postmodern focus on the everyday to the older (typically intensely ideological) trope of "moral" uplift through the arts.

[from a notebook, 2018]

29 April 2021

Fromm and Maccoby on Cultural Stimuli

In our discussion thus far we have paid little attention to the problem of the happiness of the peasant. In fact, we have stressed the economic advantage of the productive orientation, but said little of the subjective factor of satisfaction and contentment. In order to understand this problem better, we must have in mind the important fact, mentioned in Chapter 5, that the village is a cultural and spiritual desert. The values which existed for the precapitalistic peasant, and which Tawney has described so succinctly, have virtually disappeared because they are in blatant contradiction to the spirit of a society in the process of industrialization. The friendly, purposeless conversation, the fiesta, the sitting around, and the sweetness of doing nothing, which in a society with precapitalist values and traditions were subjectively very satisfying, are rapidly losing their place within the Mexican village of the 20th Century. This is so because such values and traditions cannot grow unless they are rooted in the spirit of the total culture; furthermore, the economically successful peasants, who are of the productive-hoarding type, and who dominate the village, have cut off the expenditures for fiestas and all other forms of "uneconomical" recreations. Thus the receptive peasant is left with nothing except the cheap entertainment of radio, television, movies, and comic strips. The easy access to liquor (actively promoted by the industry producing alcoholic beverages) is all that is left to make use of his free time. The picture of the "good life" portrayed by television and radio increases even more the sense of worthlessness of the purposeless life, and increases the receptive peasant's sense of defeat and hopelessness.

... It is our experience that villages in which a richer cultural tradition is still alive (such as Tepoztlán or Tzintzuntzan) have probably a somewhat larger percentage of productive-receptive characters, and it is a legitimate speculation to assume that cultures like medieval society, in which man and living are the overriding goals, while not creating the characterological basis for hard and relentless effort, and not a great deal of individualism, offer the possibility for the development of the productive-receptive orientation. Both in the case of the village today, and in the case of a village in an unbroken, humanly rich culture, productiveness develops when the economic and the cultural reality permits and stimulates the kind of activity which is the essence of productiveness.

To return to the peasant of our village, while many are characterologically motivated for hard work, they have little enjoyment. Life is seen as a struggle to keep afloat. By orienting themselves more and more to the market, to profits and material gain, the productive-hoarding peasants are increasingly influenced by the new class of entrepreneurs to give up traditional fiestas as a waste of money, to work harder to buy more consumer goods, and to provide schooling for their children so that they can leave the village. While the cane growers cling to a way of life that leaves them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation, the productive-hoarding peasants do as much as possible to pull themselves into the modern society. A combination of factors including the values of the industrial society, pressures from the new entrepreneurs, rising prices, and new consumer demands all favor an orientation toward cash crops, capital investment, and status in terms of income. But the given limitations of their economic success are such that the vast majority of the productive-hoarding peasants can never earn enough to consider themselves successful in terms of the city economy, or even in terms of the new village entrepreneurs. All they have is hard work, little reward, and the constant risk of being run over by forces they can neither predict nor control. They must look at themselves in the eyes of the industrial world as underdeveloped. (134-135)

Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby
Social Character
in a Mexican Village

Here, then, is a lovely functional role for The Arts (as part of Culture) that does not require the actual artistic production to be functional. Culture makes life worth living, and thus it is lived better with Culture at its side. What else? Culture here in the end is still subservient; the notion that it aids productivity can never be formulated in a way that does not also simultaneously contradict the emphasis on Just Because. In fact here EF and MM actually propose this remedy only for one particular personality type, which raises a second set of questions: what about the other types? Must we assume that diversity in this sphere is inevitable and hence that having proper outlets available for all types is a matter of justice? Or do we go so far as to identify benefits and drawbacks of each type and then set about devising policy that we hope trickles down all the way to the process of character formation? Oy.

For me there is an even more chilling/fraught issue here. It seems quite agreeable that life is better all around when we have pleasuable cultural outlets available to us. But as the contemporary Creative Class as theorized by Florida has demonstrated, a supremely well-developed intellectual and entrepreneurial class does not actually need an accompanying culture which matches the sophistication of their day jobs; rather, a variety of "peasant"-level diversions is plenty adequate (preferred, actually), the differences in form being merely superficial ones in the larger sense and dictated rather predictably by time and place. (Quoth Florida, if memory serves: "some would say much of this is superficial, and much of it is." No shit!) Of course some of us were bound to lose our ways and apply our productive characters, intellects, and bourgeois comforts towards art itself, without having a day job. Hence the "decadent" post-industrial phase, portending a final collapse. It would be awfully satisfying to be able to respond to this charge with sociological evidence that productive characters crave cultural engagement which matches the sophistication of the rest of their lives. However we define "sophistication," though, it's hard to see anyone alive today who is NOT simply a full-time artist themselves truly breaking out of the realm of "cheap entertainments," for the simple reason that they don't NEED (psychologically) to. If they did, they would! The Creative Class has enough money to afford to do so! Hence the authors lapse just a bit in permitting THEIR contempt for "the cheap entertainment of radio, television, movies, and comic strips" to shine forth. Really the problem is not cheapness but rather inauthenticity. These cultural artifacts are, simply, artifacts of a different culture; they are not "rooted in the spirit of the total culture." Perhaps that can be said of certain subsets of the Creative Class as well, and perhaps they'll be the ones to eventually drift towards High Art in their leisure time while their friends mock them mercilessly.

At the start of the study we asked ourselves whether the villagers would respond to more cultural stimuli if they were offered to them. To answer the question, we brought experimental stimuli to the village; they included the choir of the National University of Mexico, folk dancers, and folk singers. A reading group was formed...where each week those who were interested might come and listen to fairy tales, and to novels especially about Mexico and about peasants in other parts of the world. A group of 20 women and 2 men regularly attended the readings. They particularly enjoyed a novel about the peasants of the region during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 as well as Grimm's Fairy Tales and the stories by Tolstoy about Russian peasants. It was notable that they identified themselves with the attitudes, fears, and strivings of the European peasant. Furthermore, for the first three years of the study, motion pictures were also regularly shown by the study. At first the aim was to have comments and discussions about the films... many villagers felt reluctant to attend a performance when they did not pay for it. However, when they were encouraged to comment on the films, their comments were sensitive and perceptive.

Each villager was rated in terms of his or her participation in the cultural activities introduced by the study. Thirty percent of the villagers participated at one time or another, while 70 percent never participated... For the men there was a significant correlation between productiveness and cultural participation. ...

Why is it that the unproductive and receptive villagers do not respond to new cultural stimulation? First of all, the nature of the unproductive person is that he does not respond to stimuli, that he is passive. Furthermore, some of the particular stimuli might even have made him feel worse, in that they have reminded him of the values that represent the dominant ethic of material gain and progress and which would make him appear irresponsible and lazy. Even some of the folk stories tend to emphasize the values and moralizing of hoarding free peasants in Europe. ... If the passive-receptive villagers are to respond to cultural stimuli, it would seem that these would have to be of a different type in the context of new economic conditions that promise a better future for these people. (141-142)

A noble effort in the broadest sense, I think, but also seemingly oblivious to a couple of key points. (As always, points that the Cultural specialist would not have overlooked, whatever our other blind spots might be.) First, the authenticity problem mentioned before has not been solved here, or not REsolved at least. The presentation of both indigenous and imported peasant-themed literature certainly counts for something, and the resonances with other people from other parts of the world could be powerful. Even so, there is only so far this kind of progress can go without completing the circle as it were, i.e. nurturing and eliciting creative agency in the local polity. From my vantage point within today's outreach paradigm, the apparent limitation of this study's cultural outreach purview to the presentation of existing artifacts stands out. Certainly this is the necessary starting point; one does not go straight to cultural creation in such a scenario, but I think that the effect EF and MM clearly are seeking necessitates that agency be an eventual goal. This is NOT to say that "peasant" art can meet all needs, or that "local" production necessarily has some special metaphysical quality, or that every peasant should/must become some kind of artist. It is merely to point out that such outside studies cannot remain responsible for a village's cultural life indefinitely. At some point they must teach the man to fish, as the saying goes.

I'm not oblivious to the many and varied potential reasons why this was not attempted, but I am always surprised when it is not even addressed. The authors remark a few times that many of these peasants are in fact time-rich, which obliterates the first/best argument of various Communist oppositions to "bourgeois art" being offered up to their people; but then the conclusion that most such peasants here are time-rich because unproductive/receptive, cane planters, etc. indicates that those with the time won't benefit (can't, really) from "cultural stimuli" of any kind. The "good" ones, then, just like in American high schools, are by virtue of their breadth of interests and "good" qualities actually somewhat more strapped for time, and this intentionally and probably happily. Hence something of an impasse which is not easily massaged.

In any case, though I'm usually the ultimate skeptic of art-as-proxy for various types of general personal development in the post-industrial world, in the world here described by EF and MM, where a sizeable minority manage to achieve unmistakable inner genuineness and warmth against all odds only to have it somewhat locked inside of them by dysfunctional cultural/behavioristic norms, the potential for art therapy seems greater.

[from a notebook, 2016 or 2017]

Fromm and Maccoby on the Total Character Structure

The nonproductive forms of social relatedness in a predominantly productive person—loyalty, authority, fairness, assertiveness—turn into submission, domination, withdrawal, destructiveness in a predominantly nonproductive person. Any of the nonproductive orientations has, therefore, a positive and a negative aspect, according to the degree of productiveness in the total character structure. (78)

Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby
Social Character
in a Mexican Village

p. 79 has a long list of "positive aspects" along with their "negative aspects," the idea being as above that the productive/nonproductive binary is the linchpin distinction which colors most other secondary traits.

These sorts of theoretical edifices are always a bit unsightly, but the general insight that the beneficence or malevolence of a given trait is actually a function of many or all of the accompanying traits is a brilliant one. In Minneapolis of course, the nonproductive version of openness is apathy. (CalArts too.)

[from a notebook, 2016 or 2017]

28 April 2021

Wherein Haraway's Cyborgs Outbreed Rosin's Plastic Women

Donna Haraway
"A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century" (orig. 1985)
in Manifestly Haraway (2016)
A definition:

Affinity: related not by blood but by choice, the appeal of one chemical nuclear group for another, avidity. (16)

Actually, the "chemical nuclear" sense of "affinity" has for me connotations not of choice but of absolute (or perhaps simply intractible) physical laws. The opposite approach would mean ascribing free will and consciousness to inanimate molecules. But as for human politics, the word and usage seem quite apt.

Once again, it is awfully hard to ignore Fromm's insight into the matriarchal origins of Blood-and-Soil affinities. Perhaps then affiliation by choice (hence entailing conditional rather than unconditional affinity) is one patriarchal value worth salvaging?
The feminization of poverty—generated by dismantling the welfare state, by the homework economy where stable jobs become the exception, and sustained by the expectations that women's wages will not be matched by a male income for the support of children—has become an urgent focus. The causes of various woman-headed households are a function of race, class, or sexuality; but their increasing generality is a ground for coalitions of women on many issues. That women regularly sustain daily life partly as a function of their enforced status as mothers is hardly new; the kind of integration with the overall capitalist and progressively war-based economy is new. (39-40)

A missed opportunity, as is customary in all things Feminist, to deconstruct/interrogate this notion of "sustain[ing] daily life," which would of course immediately render it a far less appealing reference to drop in the heat of rhetorical battle. This is because sustenance-as-cross-to-bear is also integrated, but in a decidedly NOT-new way, with natural/singular identifications (i.e. Blood and Soil) as given on p. 18. Willfully-chosen affinity group parenting of an optimally scaled cohort is an obvious solution to the burdensomeness of one- or two-parent household-based arrangements, which even when perfectly equitable impose an unacceptable sacrifice on both parents. But this presupposes an affinity, a will, a choice, and so forth; i.e. a rejection of the "naturaliz[ed] matrix" on both the level of the big tribe (race/nation) and the little one (family).

In light of various "integrations" of feminized home life with feminized work life, and of the overall "redefini[tion]" of work "as both literally female and feminized," is it not telling that the precious few ascendant "new areas of high skill" are marked by a near-obsession with collaborative structures, maximally open physical work space designs, etc.? Certainly there is a sort of total availability associated with such Creative Class sectors, which indeed dovetails with the wider postindustrial "mockery of a limited workday," but the turnover seldom betokens "vulnerability" (in fact the job-hoppers customarily have the leverage). This is the mediation that the children of the liberal high-bourgeoisie have effected with the postindustrial new-normal; we know that historically this demographic may have an inconsistent moral compass, but also very good taste and a keen eye for their own self-interest. Hence while I myself am not too inclined to work in groups, as a matter of Affinity and willfullness, it seems to me that the system gain of small-group organization as against Going It Alone is the clincher in favor of group parenting. But in how many cases even among the High Creatives does domestic life mirror/"integrate" with work life? Is this perhaps a bridge too far, even for them? Here is either a test of or a crack in this notion of "integration" of post-industrial and (post-?)domestic production.
The ideologically charged question of what counts as daily activity, as experience, can be approached by exploiting the cyborg image. Feminists have recently claimed that women are given to dailiness, that women more than men somehow sustain daily life and so have a privileged epistemological position potentially. There is a compelling aspect to this claim, one that makes visible unvalued female activity and names it as the ground of life.

But the ground of life? What about all the ignorance of women, all the exclusions and failures of knowledge and skill? What about men's access to daily competence, to knowing how to build things, to take them apart, to play? What about other embodiments? Cyborg gender is a local possibility taking a global vengeance. Race, gender, and capital require a cyborg theory of wholes and parts. There is no drive in cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of boundaries, their construction and deconstruction. (66)

This is the only passage here where the cyborg trope seems essential to the broad objectives of the essay; otherwise it seems decidedly inessential, ham-handed, and attention-seeking; perhaps at once an adademic branding maneuver and an opening for a Theorist to play at Writing. There is, having said all of that, a certain logic in the metaphor as it applies to questions of daily competences and their residual+ongoing genderedness. To fully self-actualize, we must actively construct ourselves.

[from a notebook, probably late 2017]

27 April 2021

Haraway—Situated Knowledges

Donna Haraway
"Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Persepctive"
Feminist Studies 14/3 (1988)

on the "strong" social constructionist theory of scientific (non-)objectivity:
So much for those of us who would still like to talk about reality with more confidence than we allow the Christian right when they discuss the Second Coming... We would like to think our appeals to real worlds are more than a desperate lurch away from cynicism and an act of faith like any other cult's..." (577)
This itself is just rhetoric, but it's refreshing anyway. The more recent Intersectional emphasis on Local Knowledge Claims seems to me, seeing as it is yet more Local than what DH is discussing here, to be a yet more volatile maneuver: some of the most pervasive/insidious prejudices (especially racial ones) are propagated through Local Knowledge Producers, and it remains unclear to me what the epistemological distinction is between these racists and the antiracist Intersectionalists.
the further I get in describing the radicial social constructionist program...the more nervous I get. The imagery of force fields, of moves in a fully textualized and coded world...is, just for starters, an imagery of high-tech military fields, of automated academic battlefields... Technoscience and science fiction collapse into the sun of their radiant (ir)reality—war. It shouldn't take decades of feminist theory to sense the enemy here. (577-578)
This is a brilliant insight, as well as, I would add, a sort of left-becomes-right moment. From "the strong social constructionist perspective," "all drawings of inside-outside boundaries in knowledge are theorized as power moves, not moves toward truth." (576) DH can see that this orientation treats the world as irremediably hostile, confrontational, and subject to (at least potentially) the rule of might-makes-right; and she ever so delicately implies (I am reading between the lines here) that the apparent absence of any genuine reluctance among such theorists could itself suggest motivations/agendas, i.e. a desire to see the world this way whether it is accurate or not.
Feminists have to insist on a better account of the world; it is not enough to show radical historical contingency and modes of construction for everything. ... Feminists have stakes in a successor science project that offers a more adequate, richer, better account of a world, in order to live in it well... In traditional philosophical categories, the issue is ethics and politics perhaps more than epistemology. (579)
Indeed, ethics/politics and epistemology are quite mutually interdependent and dynamically linked, but ultimately it is ethical behavior out-in-the-world which is the goal, the question on which the success or failure of all other epistemological endeavors hinges. Feminists have too often blanched when science turns up knowledge we'd rather not know (B. Thorne and L. Eliot's books on boys/girls spring immediately to mind); but DH leads us out of the dark here, I think, with the insight that bedrock ethical principles enable us to pursue knowledge without any fear of how it might be used.
We are not immediately present to ourselves. Self-knowledge requires a semiotic-material technology to link meanings and bodies. Self-identity is a bad visual system. Fusion is a bad strategy of positioning. The boys in the human sciences have called this doubt about self-presence "the death of the subject" defined as a single ordering point of will and consciousness. That judgment seems bizarre to me. I prefer to call this doubt the opening of nonisomorphic subjects, agents, and territories of stories unimaginable from the vantage point of the cyclopean, self-satiated eye of the master subject. (585-586)
So, the subject has not died; it lives, but it is no longer "isomorphic," which is to say that it no longer resembles its (same)self in all times and places; which is to say that in time and space the subject is not of a fixed/constant nature but rather undergoes changes. I'm inclined to embrace this part (perhaps because I can actually understand it). There are ways in which this is (for the most part unfortunately) revolutionary in its simplicity. Just ask politicians who claim to have learned and evolved since their younger days only to thereby invite epithets like Wishy-Washy or Flip-Flopper. ... On the other hand, it only seems to solve the problem raised by bell hooks of individual subjectivity being questioned just as the subjugated have arrived to claim it. Indeed, "we are not immediately present to ourselves," and "self-identity is a bad visual system." Hence the "subjugated" subject who arrogates to speak as such in fact commits the same commutative/associative fallacy as does the ignorant outsider who asks "What do YOUR people think?"

[from a notebook, probably late 2017]

26 April 2021

Anna Freud—Adolescence, Ego, Intellect

There is a type of young person whose sudden spurt in intellectual development is no less noticeable and surprising than his rapid development in other directions. We know how often the whole interest of boys during the latency period is concentrated on things with have an actual, objective existence. Some boys love to read about discoveries and adventures or to study numbers and proportions or to devour descriptions of strange animals and objects, while others confine their attention to machinery, from the simplest to the most complicated form. The point which these two types usually have in common is that the object in which they are interested must be a concrete one, not the product of fantasy like the fairy tales and fables enjoyed in early childhood, but something which has an actual, physical existence. When the prepubertal period begins, a tendency for the concrete interests of the latency period to give place to abstractions becomes more and more marked. In particular, adolescents of the type which Bernfeld describes as characterized by "prolonged puberty" have an insatiable desire to think about abstract subjects, to turn them over in their minds, and to talk about them. Many of the friendships of youth are based on and maintained by this desire to meditate upon and discuss such subjects together. The range of these abstract interests and of the problems which these young people try to solve is very wide. They will argue the case for free love or marriage and family life, a free-lance existence or the adoption of a profession, roving or settling down, or discuss philosophical problems such as religion or free thought, or different political theories, such as revolution versus submission to authority, or friendship itself in all its forms. If, as sometimes happens in analysis, we receive a faithful report of the conversations of young people or if–as has been done by many of those who make a study of puberty–we examine the diaries and jottings of adolescents, we are not only amazed at the wide and unfettered sweep of their thought but impressed by the degree of empathy and understanding manifested, by their apparent superiority to more mature thinkers, and sometimes even by the wisdom which they display in their handling of the most difficult problems.

We revise our opinion when we turn from the examination of the adolescent's intellectual processes themselves to consider how they fit into the general picture of his life. We are surprised to discover that his fine intellectual performance makes little or no difference to his actual behavior. His empathy into the mental processes of other people does not prevent him from displaying the most outrageous lack of consideration toward those nearest him. His lofty view of love and the obligations of a lover does not mitigate the infidelity and callousness of which he is repeatedly guilty in his various love affairs. The fact that his understanding of and interest in the structure of society often far exceed those of later years does not assist him in the least to find his true place in social life, nor does the many-sidedness of his interests deter him from concentrating upon a single point–his preoccupation with his own personality.

We recognize, especially when we come to investigate these intellectual interests in analysis, that we have here something quite different from intellectuality in the ordinary sense of the term. We must not suppose that an adolescent ponders on the various situations in love or on the choice of a profession in order to think out the right line of behavior, as an adult might do or as a boy in the latency period studies a piece of machinery in order to be able to take it to pieces and put it together again. Adolescent intellectuality seems merely to minister the daydreams. Even the ambitious fantasies of the prepubertal period are not intended to be translated into reality. When a young lad fantasies that he is a great conqueror, he does not on that account feel any obligation to give proof of his courage or endurance in real life. Similarly, he evidently derives gratification from the mere process of thinking, speculating or discussing. His behavior is determined by other factors and is not necessarily influenced by the results of these intellectual gymnastics.

There is yet another point which strikes us when we analyze the intellectual process of adolescents. A closer examination shows that the subjects in which they are principally interested are the very same as have given rise to the conflicts between the different psychic institutions. Once more, the point at issue is how to relate the instinctual side of human nature to the rest of life, how to decide between putting sexual impulses into practice and renouncing them, between liberty and restraint, between revolt against and submission to authority. As we have seen, asceticism, with its flat prohibition of instinct, does not generally accomplish what the adolescent hopes. Since the danger is omnipresent, he has to devise many means of surmounting it. The thinking over of the instinctual conflict–its intellectualization–would seem to be a suitable means. Here the ascetic flight from instinct is exchanged for a turning toward it. But this merely takes place in thought; it is an intellectual process. The abstract intellectual discussions and speculations in which young people delight are not genuine attempts at solving the tasks set by reality. Their mental activity is rather an indication of a tense alertness for the instinctual processes and the translation into abstract thought of that which they perceive. The philosophy of life which they construct–it may be their demand for revolution in the outside world–is really their response to the perception of the new instinctual demands of their own id, which threaten to revolutionize their whole lives. Their ideals of friendship and undying loyalty are simply a reflection of the disquietude of the ego when it perceives the evanescence of all its new and passionate object relations. The longing for guidance and support in the often hopeless battle against their own powerful instincts may be transformed into ingenious arguments about man's inability to arrive at independent political decisions. We see then that instinctual processes are translated into terms of intellect. But the reason why attention is thus focused on the instincts is that an attempt is being made to lay hold and master them on a different psychic level.

We remember that in psychoanalytic metapsychology the association of affects and instinctual processes with word representations is stated to be the first and most important step in the direction of the mastery of instinct which has to be taken as the individual develops. Thinking is described in these writings as "an experimental kind of acting, accompanied by displacement of relatively small quantities of cathexis together with less expenditure (discharge) of them" (Freud, 1911, p. 221). ["Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning"] This intellectualization of instinctual life, the attempt to lay hold on the instinctual processes by connecting them with ideas which can be dealt with in consciousness, is one of the most general, earliest, and most necessary acquirements of the human ego. We regard it not as an activity of the ego but as one of its indispensable components.

Once more we have the impression that the phenomena here comprised in the notion of "intellectualization at puberty" simply represent the exaggeration, under the peculiar conditions of a sudden accession of libido, of a general ego attitude. It is merely the increase in the quantity of libido which attracts attention to a function of the ego performed by it at other times as a matter of course, silently, and, as it were, by the way. If this is so, it means that the intensification of intellectuality during adolescence–and perhaps, too, the very marked advance in intellectual understanding of psychic processes which is always characteristic of an access [sic] of psychotic disease–is simply part of the ego's customary endeavor to master the instincts by means of thought.

Anna Freud
trans. Cecil Baines
The Ego and the Mechanisms
of Defense
(1966) [orig. 1936]
pp. 160-163

25 April 2021

The Latest Unavoidable Editorial Notice

Periodically bloggers call a 30-second time out to step out of their virtual bodies and observe. Here we go again.

The consciously-stated guiding principles here (staying on topic, avoiding making myself part of the story, and overall continence in rate of production) have been stetched over the years, and they're being stretched to the breaking point now. Where to go from here? On the topical front, it no longer seems constructive (or even possible) for every post to relate directly/explicitly to music. Still, music is the focus. This can no longer be an editorial policy vis-a-vis content itself, but it is very much still true of the larger project. Everything here can still be read with this front of mind. If doing so makes a particular item seem especially farfetched or off topic, then that is your cue as the reader to keep searching for the connection. These are my intentions at least, and I am stating them. I won't tell anyone how to think. I used to read a lot of musicians' blogs and felt that in most of them there really was no such connection, nor much of anything else worthwhile. This I found frustrating in light of the obvious potential of the medium, and this frustration has informed my direction here. At this point I can forgive any reader who finds my insistence that music is still the focus to be insincere and/or meaningless. For me this focus is very much still there.

The quote-mania aspect needs to be addressed specifically. I realize that it is often unsightly on any number of levels. Specifically,

--things taken out of context will be misunderstood, rendered useless, etc.

--authority and/or proof will be implied where they should not be

--the reason for posting the excerpt (am I agreeing? disagreeing? bolstering myself? questioning myself? looking busy?) is not always transparent in absence of more (any) commentary

--there is an element of aggression, showboating, etc. in saying, essentially, hey everyone, look at me and how many obscure books I've read and taken notes on

I am aware of all of these dangers. For me, now, they are trumped by a deeply-felt need (the first rumblings were here) to ground my thinking (and action!) in something bigger than the peasant empiricism which previously prevailed here. I'm comfortable courting each of the above dangers in order to try to get at something better.

Biases and perversions are more than mere social deviancies. They also channel our attention in constructive ways. For every basic reality they cause us to overlook, there is a hidden (to others) reality which they cause us to notice. I do a lot of playing with rhetoric and verbiage, because I enjoy those things and we're allowed to have fun sometimes, but my ultimate aim here is to notice things, secure in the knowledge what is biased or perverted about my noticing sense is precisely what makes my observations worth sharing publicly. My end of the bargain is to also mix in some sources which compensate for my blind spots.

Some biographical details which may or may not explain my behavior as an adult:

--Sometime around eighth or ninth grade, I had a teacher assign us to write our homework assignment on an index card. Often teachers would merely suggest materials, but I remember that in this particular case the requirement that we use an actual fucking index card, as opposed to any other kind of paper product fashioned into index-card-like form, became non-negotiable and was factored into grading. I believe the conceit here was to condition high-level "academic" skills and organization, but I'm not sure. In any case, despite my father being a goddamned tenured college professor and my mother an exceptional salt-of-the-earth intellectual, despite the house being filled to the ceiling with intellectual artifacts both externally procured and internally generated, the proper index cards which this teacher considered to be as essential to academic production as the books themselves were not an item that our household typically kept in stock or would have any reason to. Without a car, before Amazon, and in a midwestern city that runs on farmer's hours, it was, odd as it sounds since this was not really that long ago, hardly the easiest thing in the world to acquire the cards in time for me to earn full credit on the assignment. Happily, Mom did eventually manage to locate an old supply of recipe cards, buried deep in the scratch-paper cupboard underneath the kitchen phone, lost among all manner of hoarded paper oddities (more on this later). I suspect the card was older than I was, perhaps even older than my teacher. It was college-ruled with very thick dark blue lines, which I found obnoxious. I suppose you could say we got through this together, a strong intellectual family weathering (this time) the tyranny of mediocrity which prevails in intellectual life and in every other kind of human institution. Memories change the more we access them, so some detail could be off here, but the point is that I recently started accessing this memory more often after realizing that I have spontaneously/organically lurched toward a maniacal-compulsive perversion of the index card theory of intellectual inventory management. The glib observation that students in more vulnerable home circumstances don't always receive these small pieces of support is VERY apt here, and it does make me viscerally angry, RIGHT NOW, as I type this, to think that small-minded bullshit like this is undoubtedly part of various Achievement Gaps that can indeed be placed at the doorsteps of the petit-bourgeois overachiever index-card class of college completers. I had GREAT teachers, actually, but this still happened, there was real trauma involved, and it pisses me off a lot because it's so unnecessary. I had to "unschool" for about a decade before I could function intellectually. At that point I started buying Post-Its and Moleskines by the case. No seriously, I spent almost $400 online on a case of Moleskines because single Moleskines are crazy overpriced at OfficeMax! I had to look really hard to find this, even on today's internet! This will only pay off if I eventually use them all! My mock-superstition is that when I fill the last page I will die! But at least I will die at my own hand rather than that of some small-minded bureaucrat.

--Sometime later in high school, when we had started writing pretty serious papers and shit, the bibliography bugbear really began to roar. My thoughts on this nowadays are basically the same as above, and my evolution has followed the same ironic path. The index card moment here was the time I found I had failed to harvest all of the bibliographical info I needed from a certain library book which had since been returned. I made a special bus trip downtown, found the book on the shelf, took down the info, and probably missed a couple of hours of sleep which undoubtedly will come off the end of my life. I never considered just fudging the info, never considered that as hard as it was for me to retrieve it so hard would it be for the teacher to check it, never considered that teachers (even the good ones) don't love grading papers, they just want their students to "get" the lesson. I did not need the lesson and was punished for it. By myself or by the teacher? Here is a good old liberal vs. conservative topic for talking-head debate! I wish this trip downtown had not happened, but I survived and have now lived long enough that it has shaped me in what I feel to be a constructive and meaningful way. Now the internet has made bibliographies both too easy and too difficult. Now it seems excessive, aggressive, showboaty, etc. to provide even the minimal bibliographical detail that I do here. But in my working notes I record ALL THE THINGS MOTHERFUCKERS, just like a GOOD FUCKING BUREAUCRAT, and then I FUCKING SIT ON THEM like a goddamned mother hen.

--My dear mother, of scratch-paper cupboard fame, has unfortunately never quite gotten her act together in the area of actual intellectual production. What she has done is filled the family home to the ceiling with her sources, refused to cull a single one of them until she has produced her masterwork, and then neglected to get on with it. I'm omitting lots of relevant details from this story. The point is, now that I know what this looks like, I reeeally don't want it to happen to me. I often receive books from LAPL which previous patrons have mutilated with notes, underlining, pages folded over, etc. Usually this is unobtrustive, but sometimes it's not. The first bell hooks book I got my hands on this way had had the entire final chapter ripped out; it must be really good or really bad! People have a thousand and one ways of avoiding the hard work of intellectual production, by which I mean not merely formal publication but rather ANY personal practice of intellectual synthesis. Passive consumption is fine too, but only if you are content with it. Contrary to the boat stabilization brigade (BSB), I think that few people really are content with it, and I wonder if every neatly folded page corner in a library book is not really a cry for help, a coping mechanism of high-functioning procrastinators (HFPs). Fucking write it down! At least take a fucking picture of it with your goddamned smartphone. DON"T JUST STAND THERE, DO SOMETHING! And do it NOW, while the spark is fresh. You can clean the toilet and shave your crotch tomorrow. This cannot wait. I made many blind lurches away from HFP without ever quite breaking free. It is a disease that you have to confront, and you may have to change your surroundings in order to be able to confront it. I finally stared it down for good in the CalArts library (yes, I came crying back to school one last time) when, having once again strapped myself to the railroad tracks of small-minded bureaucracy, I was required to produce program notes for my graduation recital. Instead of just blowing off empirical steam on my blog, I found that I could launch myself off of other authors like a missile. I could launch onto my desktop, into my email, or straight onto the 'net; I could unburden myself into stacks of Moleskines, index cards, stickie notes, or junk mail; I could post it, stick it, stack it, hoard it, or cull it; I could indulge in creative mutilation of books I own while respecting the sanctity of my community-of-choice's Clean Copy. Only pension-chasing crotch-grooming overachievers have absolute beliefs about which of these is The Way. What matters is that you strike while the iron is hot so that you can move on without fear of loss, so that your living space doesn't become a suffocating fire trap, and so that the few other people who give a fuck about the same things you give a fuck about don't have to smell your stale shit in every library book you've ever touched even though you scrape the shit off your toilet bowl faster than you can expel it from your body. You will retain more knowledge and less shit this way, rendering your prior productions inessential to your general ability to think, and therefore liberating yourself from fear of loss. If you are steadily improving yourself, your best production always lies ahead of you and your previous productions cannot dominate you by threatening to pass out of existence (as all our productions eventually will, it must be said). It's also fine to read with no prententions beyond the moment! But please don't let your unrealized pretensions kill you, not from the inside and not from the outside, and please don't project them onto shared community materials. We all have our own demons to grapple with and don't need yours staring back at us.

Quite unexpectedly, just as I was really starting to launch into this process, I got a full-time job. I was still able to read and record at about 70-80% of the previous rate, but eventually some "synthesis" beyond stream-of-consciousness notewriting needed to happen, and now there was no time for it. Though I was growing on the inside, I still felt headed for stifled hoarderism. And then of course, as jobs do, even more quickly than it had appeared it went away. This brings us more or less up to the present. From unschooling to unstifling.

For any readers here, the most important result of this to be aware of is that this blog has acquired a new function for me, hopefully in addition to those which it already served and not in place of them, but perhaps in place of them for yet-to-be-determined stretches of time. Namely, I want to gather as many of my virtual "index cards" as I can and begin organizing them by topic. Only time will tell whether this has been worth the trouble, but from where I stand (and I do stand at the computer, because I'm over six feet tall) some objectives seem obvious:

--when casual conversations turn uncasual, it's nice to have one's sources organized, available, and sharable anywhere via the information superhighway's most infamous vehicle

--though it seems unlikely that I'll ever do mainstream publication, I also won't rule it out, and so it's best to get organized now than later; why not do it here?

--many things I wrote previously really badly need to be fact checked, rethought, qualified, footnoted, bolstered, demolished, reiterated; or, less spectacularly, they need to be incrementally revised, deepened, fleshed out, balanced out, etc. I remain committed to avoiding revision of the old posts themselves wherever possible, such that the blog remains an honest and true document of my thinking in particular moments, even when this thinking now strikes me (and could strike others!) as quite wrong. Rather, any "post" can now also become a "thread," living and dead at the same time. From an intellectual perspective I find this a very intriguing (mis)use of the basic blog architecture, a use for which said architecture is made worse and not better by the vicious McLuhanization which has now maimed every other online medium that might have served similar purposes. The comment functionality here is actually much more awkward than a shoebox full of index cards! The crotch-trimmers get some poetic justice! Yet this awkwardness can also be, to conjure a precious faux-deviant academicism, reclaimed as a generative strategy. Hence I am sticking with Blogger for as long as Blogger will stick with me!

Regarding the flimsiness of the sources themselves, I must beg forgiveness and patience. I started with psychoanalysis because it seemed to be underlying (often explicitly but not always) most of the assumptions about art that I wanted to work towards refuting. What I found instead is, first of all, that holders of said assumptions cannot possibly have actually read or understood any of the seminal psychoanalytic writers. Secondly, I found that works which are ultimately completely crazy and wrong can still be quite edifying, and that certainly they can help to explain "intellectual history" even if they hold little water otherwise. Third, I believe I also found that psychoanalysis is not totally full of shit, even if it is mostly full of shit. These three points apply equally to my second major reading project, Guy Debord and the Situationists. Again, forgiveness and patience please. I had been involved in a performance which claimed to take Situationist "psychogeography" as one of its inspirations. The architect of this monstrosity has either not read or not in the least understood the Situationists. But I only suspected that. I had to confirm it on my own. In book time, this confirmation is costly and comes slowly. I'm sure it would be more ideal to have Marx, Habermas, or Bourdieu under my belt by now. These have long seemed, from a distance as it were, like urgent oeuvres for this tuba player to encounter. Yet no one in my working life was making them quite so urgent. I have decided to make daily necessity my guide. This is a thoroughly reactive rather than proactive posture, which I hate in principle, but it does ensure motivation and purpose, and even, dare I say it, some direct quotidian applications of some very academic ideas. The next themed investigation relates to my job, and it's under wraps until that situation resolves itself. If you think these are intellectually trifling bodies of work that I have thus far worked though, you simply will not believe what this latest one ended up being! But the same three discoveries apply, and this time they reflect more poorly on my own people than on my opponents. Around the edges there have been some side projects (how I despise that term) which relate only distantly to these themes. And eventually, for balance, there came a period of free-for-all, in which we currently find ourselves. All of which is to say that this has not unfolded in any kind of intellectually logical or ideal way. That's life. It doesn't always work for the logic to come first. My sincere hope is that the logic might emerge, eventually, from the emergent, ever-sprawling Fickle Ears.

24 April 2021

Parsons on Ideological Skewness

The relation of an ideological system to the social system in which it takes root is highly complex, and subject to a great deal of variation in different circumstances. In a well-integrated society the dominant ideology in large measure reflects and interprets a large part of the system of actually institutionalized patterns. But even in the most stable societies the ideological patterns are selective relative to the institutional. Ideological formulation often reflects a need to justify, which may imply a sense of insecurity. Hence, those patterns which are most completely taken for granted are likely to play a small role, if any, in explicit ideology. The system is thus "skewed" in the direction of emphasizing elements which are felt to be "problematical." Consciousness of contrast with other societies is one major factor in this." (267)

Talcott Parsons
"The Problem of Controlled Institutional Change" (1945)
in Essays in Sociological Theory (1954)
pp. 238-274

Note (4 June, 2016): A brilliant analysis. Essentially he's pointing out the same logical conundrum of the notion of something being "extremely average." The ideological average/LCD by definition does not have a strong enough profile in either absolute or relative terms to be consolidated into powerful political statements. Attempts at this fall flat just as sayings like "extremely average" or "intensely mediocre" come off as humorous and/or ironic no matter the affect with which they are uttered. Hence, the harder the political center tries to consolidate its message, the more ridiculous they look. Meanwhile, various extremists gain notoriety all out of proportion to their logical underpinnings and real level of support simply because they appeal to baser lizard-brain impulses and have a very strong/distinctive profile built into them. I have been maintaining this election season that the "center" represented by H. Clinton and other status-quo candidates (or are there any in the repub. party?) is essentially a crudely calculated mirage which simply takes the average of strong-left and strong-right positions and consolidates it in order to appeal to the LCD. I feel that it thus represents very few actual people's views. The increasing struggles of mainstream candidates and the increasing success of relatively extreme insurgents back this up. All indications are that the polity is highly polarized right now, which means that while this fake center tries to stigmatize "extreme" left and right views as if their common extremeness were their defining feature and their many substantive differences irrelevant in light of this, the fact is that these VAST differences are TOTALLY relevant, and hence that one or the other of the "extreme" candidates collectively represent far more people than the centrists ever could hope to. Hence their conundrum, and ours. Here TP sounds a cautionary note from the mainstream, reminding us extremists that our "ideologies" are undoubtedly rooted to some extent in our "insecurity" and in our "us-against-them" mindset (our "consciousness of contrast" with the other), and that just because we can't detect any common sense emanating from the center doesn't mean that it is not there (i.e. things are inherently "skewed" towards extremes). In a vacuum, I'll drink to that. In the actual world I live in, there are all manner of additional factors to consider which lead me to feel comfortable supporting Bernie and less and less comfortable with Hillary on any level. The current mainstream might literally be the worst of all evils. But TP's is a timely note of caution even so.

...the objects of ideological formation are mainly in the "remote" category to most persons–or are high-level abstractions with a similar significance. Hence, they are less fully controlled by realistic considerations and constitute particularly favorable opportunities for the operation of such nonrational and irrational mechanisms as projection, displacement, identification. Where there are severe and definitely structured tensions in a society there are almost certain to be ideological patterns which contain conspicuous elements of unrealism, romantic idealization, and distortion." (268)

Note (4 June, 2016): A partner statement with the previous one, and clearer connection between psychoanalytic theory and real-world political/ideological phenomena than any of the psychoanalysts themselves seemed to be capable of formulating.