Before I get into it, here’s a relevant passage from Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art in which he describes one of Van Gogh’s studies of peasant shoes (One finds oneself in a dangerously forgiving mood when reading philosophy written this beautifully.) :
A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more. And yet…From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles stretches the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quite gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. The equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-withing-self.
This passage was on my mind as I left the movie theater last week, having finally given Star Wars: The Last Jedi a go. It’s hard to overestimate the impact Star Wars has had on the worldview of what is now three generations of Americans, including my own. Unlike many of my compatriots, however, it’s never been a religion for me. Or at any rate, I’m an apostate. I, for one, thought the prequel movies were jolly good fun. I had no real expectations of those movies, nor for The Force Awakens. But since I was such a fan of Rian Johnson’s Brick and Looper, I’ll admit I might have set the bar a little too high for The Last Jedi. In the end, it was no better or no worse than the last four movies. Nothing gained, nothing lost. But it was apparently a real let down for the faithful because the expectations of this one were that it would dig deeply into Jedi mythology and lay down some canonical law for any future fan fiction. For me, the film’s pronounced lack of substance was actually kind of thought-provoking. I couldn’t help but think about what fantasy tells us about the truth function of art about which Heidegger is speaking in his essay.
I’m worried that my fellow travelers on the Left may be making too much of the recent election in Alabama. First of all, the election was close. And as of this writing, Roy Moore has yet to concede defeat. The conspiracy machines are turning. This thing might be taken to the courts, and the United States does not have the best track record when it comes to letting courts decide elections.
The grim possibility that partisan judges might be empowered to interpret the will of the voters notwithstanding, I am concerned with the way the Left is interpreting this political moment. The Left, you see, still acts as if there were such thing as an arc of history. Richard Wolfe’s latest column for The Guardian, “Roy Moore’s stunning defeat reveals the red line for Trump-style politics,” is typical of this view. The thinking is that we have had our reversal of fortunes, and now we’re undergoing anagnorisis, or recognition. Soon, after his family tears itself apart, the mad King Lear will fall and we will have our catharsis. That may well happen, but the problem with such a view is that encourages us to wait and spectate. We’re all watching a play while a mob stands outside the theater with torches, ready to burn the place to the ground.
I think I must give off a sort of Louis Theroux vibe. People on the most extreme fringes feel comfortable opening up to me for some reason, even as I make it clear that I’m not with them. This has given me the opportunity to have frank conversations over the years with fundamentalists and radicals of just about every ideological flavor. In each case, the currency of the realm is equivocation. Its function is not to prove that Side A is right by virtue of the fact that Side B has done bad things too; it is to show that Side A and Side B are the same, and so the only choice is Side C, which just turns out to be Side A by another name. It’s simple. It’s lazy. But it’s still the most effective way of sewing moral confusion. Mind you, this is nothing new…But add it to the epistemic confusion caused by information overload, and you’ve got a rhetorical H-bomb.
Equivocation is reason why Trump has been able to thrive where other politicians might have crashed and burned. And it’s why when Trump eventually does crash and burn, others will likely thrive in his place.
His “many sides” response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA is the most disgusting example yet of Trump’s equivocalist rhetoric. The scary thing is that he was probably on mental autopilot when he said it. Equivocation is a worldview as much as it is a rhetorical tool.
This is one of the reasons I’ve been pursuing the slippery topic of similarity in recent years, which unfortunately is understood as being…well…equivocal to equivocation (i.e. the repetition of the same essence). I think we need to be able to think past repetition as being repetition of the same. Equivocation is a way of casting similarity as the repetition of the same quality which differs only in proportion (i.e. quantity). Deleuze got the closest to a new way of thinking repetition when he saw difference as emerging out from the amplitude/intensity of the repetition of the same. But like the equivocal understanding of similarity, this just reduces quality to quantity. I believe we need to think repetition as a distortive, qualitative thing which can best be understood by a radical re-thinking of similarity.
Elizabeth Bruenig has written an excellent piece in the Washington Post entitled “Why is millennial humor so weird?” While Bruenig is not the first person to diagnose the millennial condition through humor, her piece is the most clearheaded and insightful I’ve seen on the topic.
Bruenig focuses in particular on the aesthetics of absurdity in millennial cultural production, which, in contrast to absurdist aesthetics of the past, is not accented with outright pessimism:
Surrealism and its anarchic cousin dadaism are nothing new; neither is absurdism or weirdness in art. ‘The absurd,’ Albert Camus wrote in 1942, ‘is born of this confrontation between the human need [for happiness and reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world.’ Absurdity is the compulsion to go looking for meaning that simply isn’t there. Today’s surrealism draws aspects of all of these threads together with humor, creating an aesthetic world where (in common internet parlance) ‘lol, nothing matters,’ but things may turn out all right anyway.
I would add that millennial absurdism can further be defined against the cynicism and irony of postmodern cultural products (those belonging to baby boomers and gen x’ers). In postmodern culture, the central trope was self-referentiality–the practice of acknowledging production from within the production (think of the “S.O.B.s” episode of Arrested Development when the show found out it was going to be canceled). Here, we can go back to McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cold media. The postmodern aesthetic of self-referentiality was a bit like hot media in that its consumption was profoundly passive. It was so passive that its producers (writers, onscreen talent, etc.) positioned themselves as members of the audience, watching the production right along side us. In other words, even the producers removed themselves from the production. There was no need to go looking for meaning in context because, as the audience, we were the context. There was no meaning to be found outside of ourselves. Millennial absurdism by contrast takes the attitude that context is always yet to come; the audience must actively create the context by distorting the product.
It’s been reported that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed the day after Kellyanne Conway’s instantly infamous “alternative facts” blunder. So the cloud of lies, acrimony, ignorance, and intolerance that was this week may have a silver lining. I hope as many people get a chance to read Orwell’s masterpiece as possible.
But I fear that if they’re simply looking for allegory (in the mode of what I call correspondence similarity), they’ll be missing out on what makes the book a masterpiece in the first place. If you simply want some insight on the authoritarian mindset and the ease with which a populace can go from civil and critical to cruel and cretinous, I’d point you to Orwell’s essays and memoirs. And anyway, Trump is really more of a Berkshire boar (Napoleon, Animal Farm) than a Big Brother. 1984, I submit, is a novel about beauty.
I’m not often drawn to the Lacanian reading of things. There are a few reasons for this, none of which approach anything like a refutation of Lacan. I always feel that I’m not particularly interested at present, but that some day I will be. Anyway, for someone who does Lacan well, I’d refer you to Levi Bryant, who, in terms of raw IQ, is pretty much unrivaled in his field.
Still, I can’t help but think there’s something Lacanny about the current national debate around facts, which, after the Comet Ping Pong shooting and the CIA’s findings about Russian mischief, appears poised to upend the sustaining illusion of our nationhood. What follows is not a Lacanian reading, but Lacanny conjecture.
It begins, perhaps, with the argument over climate change. That was the first major clash between basic science and politics. Religion and science had of course clashed before that, and those clashes inevitably spilled over onto politics; but if there is religious opposition to the science of climate change, it is because the politics of climate change denial has spill out onto religion, not the other way around. In any case, climate change denial is not an article of faith for most sects.
Te tu kamlan o film Thinner, apa, kam volis o programmo Shut Eye. Kako shon kam avel nevo programmo pe Hulu kaj bushol Shut Eye pa duzhmane Rromende kaj traijen sar i Mafia. Chaches, si o bersh 2017. Offensivno? Oh yeah. Numa nashti ma jertisarav le bilasho skrimos. Mustaj man te phenav: o skrimos si o chacho dosh.
Chaches, me dikhlem o Jeffery Donovan ando programmo Burn Notice taj me kamlem leste. O dondalo actor butivar ankerel versogodi mishto kering leski butchi, numa chi dashtisailo te azhutil kakalo khulalo programmo. Maj ekh data, o skrimos strashno lo. O Leslie Bohem (ironic nav) ramosardyas o Shut Eye, taj fal ma ke wov kerdjas lesko “research” katar e lila King of the Gypsies aj Hastened to the Grave finke sa Rromane swata te e Rroma den vorbi si “buzho,” “amraja,” “love,” aj “gazhe.” Chi ashunlem nikon kaj phenel kukole swata “buzho” vor “amraja.” Numa butivar dikhodol kukole swata ande kadale lila. Vi kanagodi won phenen “gazhe,” won phenen “gazhe” vash jekh mush taj vi but zhene. Sode pharo te pokinel ekh chacho Rrom kaj del duma Rromanes te sikjavel lenge? Naj Hulu dosta love?
I familia po programmo bushol o Marks. Maj ekh data, o Bohem ljas lesko “research” katar Hastened to the Grave. Obviously. Po jekh episode, i puridej (Isabella Rosellini) shindyas ekh “M” la fatsa ekh raklyatar. Kon kerel kodja? Nadiv ma ke i chachi familia Marks keren lawsuit protiv le Hulu. Si chachimos ke won dashtin te keren kodja finke naj Rroma zor taj naj Rroma glaso taj naj Rroma love. Marks, arakhes Marx.
So maj bilasho kodo: Nikon mashkar la media (Dikh) prindjarel ke kodo programmo akushine chache zhene. Sostar ashunas “Naj bisteran” kana si antisemitism, numa kana si antitziganism, won prosto bisteren? Numa sar shaj seres ekh zhene kaj bichacho?
English readers: Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like a translation of my review.
Toledo has seen better times. But it does have an art museum left over from its glory days that can go toe-to-toe with just about any museum in the country. Seriously. Come and see it if you can.
I was there yesterday with my department to look at the new Shakespeare exhibit and, as a side trip, to show off some of the Etruscan and early Roman work we had been discussing in my lecture on the history of the alphabet.
But there was a wonderful surprise waiting for us. A new installation from Gabriel Dawe called Plexus no. 35.
The work is doubly exposed because there’s no behind to it and because it’s just bundles of thread attached from floor to ceiling by little, open hooks. Destroying the whole thing would be the work of a moment. There were two museum attendants at all times to make sure no one–child and adult alike–gave in the the temptation to run their hands along the threads. For my own sake, I’m glad they were there.
Plexus no. 35 is a pretty thing. And I suppose when we come across a pretty thing, the other organs get jealous of our eyes. It’s natural to want to touch, if not taste and smell it. I put a lot of things into my mouth as a child.
But standing in front of Dawe’s work was extra frustrating. It isn’t a light show or a new media work in any sense we’re use to. But it’s clear that light is the object. The light isn’t affecting the thing; the thread matter is there to affect the light. So that even if you did give into the burning temptation to run your hands along the thread, it wouldn’t satisfy. Perhaps the museum attendants weren’t there to keep us from destroying the work, but to save us from the disappointment. You can’t touch something that creates its own spatial frame.
The point of Harmanian object withdrawal is that there is always something in reserve which reason and sense cannot touch. But standing in front of a Dawe installation, repressing the toddler’s urge to touch it or to put it in your mouth is about as close as you can get to seeing what withdrawal looks like.
Columbia professor who sabbaticaled in France for a year reports that Europeans take a much more nuanced approach to things.
Take a look.
I am well aware of the excesses of so-called identity liberalism; but out here in the provinces, it is not just a play thing of the bored, hyper-privileged kids who populate Professor Lilla’s classroom (who will be fine no matter what they look like, no matter who is president). Out here, being black and female and gay and poor and Muslim still burns white hot with political energy. Identity politics was not the undoing of the Clinton campaign, but perhaps the failure to address geographical identity was. Lilla is from Detroit. He should know better.
Yesterday I reached for my Marx but found myself holding Tolkien. Tolkien himself preached against using fantasy as an escape because doing so makes your own mind a prison. So let’s say I was looking for some simple wisdom and perspective. I wasn’t disappointed. Here’s one pearl:
‘I cannot imagine what information could be more terrifying than your hints and warnings,’ exclaimed Frodo. ‘I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect it in our own Shire. Can’t a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?’
‘But it is not your own Shire,’ said Gildor. ‘Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourself in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.’