Monday, 24 July 2017

Bowie and The Network Socity

Bowie: The Network Society and Opening Themes (Death; Sex/ Gender; Economics; Love; Medium/ Form; The Future)

The key claim of the Cracked-Actor Network Theory is that Bowie exemplifies the conditions of post-war western society. This was named by Manuel Castells as The Network Society by which he meant those social orders that emerged more or less during Bowie’s adult life. It is characterised by the historical and cultural impact of electronic technologies including the New Media of telecommunication and computation systems and the subsequent primacy of information as a metaphor for communication and organisation.

In this sense Network Society describes the conditions and cultures of late capitalism. Frederic Jameson argues that these conditions are synonymous with both postmodernity and the emergence of “the world system” in which the power of nation states is effaced by global networks of capital and communication where information becomes the primary unit of capitalist exchange. In such cultures power no longer operates according to a disciplinary logic (as Foucault observed of modernity) but rather control where power is distributed across networks (as Deleuze claimed in his famous “postscript” essay).

Subjectivity is similarly understood to be both distributed across different communicative networks and also mediated by them; in other words human identity does not exist a-priori but is in fact constituted by those different networks within which it is situated (such as social media.) Hence, the conditions of the Network Society present radical challenges to the account of autonomous and rational humanity that emerges in the European Enlightenment. As in other accounts of the conditions of subjectivity in late capitalism, such as Posthumanism humans are identified as enmeshed within and reliant upon existing economic, technological and ecological networks that are beyond their control.

Taking this as a starting point we can consider how Bowie’s own persona as “more than one, less than many” mimicked the effects of late capitalism. His multiple identities were also, performatively, contingent upon those conditions he found himself in.

In doing so we can use the following themes to think about both Bowie and human subjectivity in the age of the global system:


[These ideas were be explored in an MA Seminar for Art in the Contemporary World lead by Francis Halsall and Vaari Claffey]

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Bowie: More than one, but less than many. The beginning of a Cracked Actor-Network Theory

Bowie: More than one, but less than many. The beginning of a Cracked Actor-Network Theory

David Bowie once claimed that: “But anything that Western culture has to offer – I’ve put myself through it.” What happens, then, if we take Bowie at his word? What if the cracked-actor can be used as a mechanism to consider a general account of the cultural logic of late capitalism?

In Aircraft Stories, John Law, the Sociologist and pioneer of Actor-Network Theory gives an account of the development of a British military aircraft, the TSR2. However, this is not a mere account of military technology. Instead, Law argues, the aircraft is used to frame a more general description of the social system of the “Euro-American world” in the 2nd half of the 20thCentury. His project is to use the TSR2 to think: “about modernism and its child, postmodernism – and about how we might think past the limits that these set to our ways of thinking.”

Law describes his method of Actor-Network Theory in the following terms:

“Actor-network theory is a disparate family of material-semiotic tools, sensibilities and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social and natural worlds as a continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located. It assumes that nothing has reality or form outside the enactment of those relations. Its studies explore and characterise the webs and the practices that carry them. Like other material-semiotic approaches, the actor-network approach thus describes the enactment of materially and discursively heterogeneous relations that produce and reshuffle all kinds of actors including objects, subjects, human beings, machines, animals, ‘nature’, ideas, organisations, inequalities, scale and sizes, and geographical arrangements.”

Conceived in these terms, the TSR2 is an object that can be understood as positioned within a complex set of networks and relations. It is “a fractionally coherent subject or object is one that balances between plurality and singularity. It is more than one, but less than many.”

The proposal, then, is to consider David Bowie in similar terms; that is, as similarly fractionally coherent and more than one, but less than many.” In doing so an account of the social systems of late capitalism might emerge as the medium and context within which the identity of David Bowie was framed and constituted.

[These ideas will be explored in an MA Seminar for Art in the Contemporary World lead by Francis Halsall and Vaari Claffey]

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

5 Years, that's all we've got

In 1971 David Bowie was still a young man of 24 when he invented Ziggy Stardust the messianic alien rock star who came to earth. By the end of the album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Ziggy is dead in a ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’, having been torn apart by, apparently, his appetites and fans. As we know, Bowie himself was perpetually in a moment being lived twice – Bowie being the alter-ego of the more prosaically named David Jones. A mere 45 years later Bowie was, like Ziggy, also gone; his death having been similarly, meticulously choreographed in the beautiful, unprecedented and almost unbearable work of art of the album Blackstar and its accompanying videos.

The Ziggy album opens with the song ‘5 Years’. As is so often the case with the best pop music it is reflection on human finitude amidst the fleeting contingencies of the world. And the potential for love and art (and, surely in pop we can be allowed to think of them as being the same thing) to sweetly resist the disorder and collapse that we must all, inevitably, submit to.

The story of the song narrated by the singing protagonist begins with him:

“Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying.”

It appears that humans and their world are facing extinction.

In the list that follows you can hear our character collecting up the appearances of the furniture of a world that is about to no longer exist. As he walks around the dying environment he becomes a kind of pop phenomenologist grasping at the thick textures of phenomena. He’s gathering up some of those things that will, all too soon, be gone for ever:

“I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies,
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and tvs.
My brain hurt like a warehouse it had no room to spare,
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there.”

The key moment of the song comes with the following line:

“I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour,
drinking milk shakes cold and long.
Smiling and waving and looking so fine,
don’t think you knew you were in this song.”

At this moment there comes a beautiful merging of worlds. It’s signalled by Bowie singing in a higher register. The worlds of our protagonist’s memory and the song we listen to become indistinguishable. The address “don’t think you knew you were in this song” seems to be directed within the song, to the milkshake drinker whilst also, simultaneously, pointing outwards to the listener. We’re in the song too. At this moment, the moment of the planet’s doom becomes a moment to be lived twice over. It is lived in the memory of the protagonist; and lived again in the song.

The song becomes a stand-in for all works of art which are like little warehouses crammed full of those things that are about to be lost; those things that, in 5 years will be gone. 

There’s the rub. 5 years. That all any of us have; more or less; give or take the odd year here and there. In a few mere years we will all be gone. And in the face of this finitude the only thing that offers any salvation is beauty.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Spaceship Earth Does Not Move

The movements of the stars have become clearer; but to the mass of the people the movements of their masters are still incalculable.
Bertolt Brecht, The Life of Galileo

Spaceship Earth is not Static

Stand up and look down at your feet.

I’m going to assume that you’re not travelling, which is increasingly likely these days. But in any event it doesn’t change the main point. The ground beneath your feet is not moving; at least not in relation to your body. The sky above, outside, is not so fixed.  The sun and moon and all that other stuff up there travel above us on their daily and annual and other cycles within the cosmic system. But the ground is different. It’s a fixed base. This fixity is important both literally as it’s where your feet are planted, and metaphorically too, as it’s a foundation for our experience. Experience begins with and on the earth.

Yet squaring this experience with what we know creates something of a snag. It’s not what’s happening in reality. Spaceship Earth is not static. Scientific observation tells us that the motionless planet of experience is actually hurtling through space; spinning not only around its axis but also around the sun. Freud recognised the trauma that this scientific knowledge potentially causes and spoke about the two outrages to humanity that modern science provided; a third being presented by his own psychoanalysis:

Humanity, in the course of time, has had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages against its naive self-love. The first was when humanity discovered that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system hardly conceivable in its magnitude. This is associated in our minds with the name “Copernicus,” although Alexandrian science had taught much the same thing. The second occurred when biological research robbed man of his apparent superiority under special creation, and rebuked him with his descent from the animal kingdom, and his ineradicable animal nature. This re-valuation, under the influence of Charles Darwin, Wallace and their predecessors, was not accomplished without the most violent opposition of their contemporaries. But the third and most irritating insult is flung at the human mania of greatness by present-day psychological research, which wants to prove to the “I” that it is not even master in its own home, but is dependent upon the most scanty information concerning all that goes on unconsciously in its psychic life.”

Crucially, the scientific Copernican Revolution of modernity not only involves the astronomical modelling of the cosmos but also a shift in world-view. What emerges is a theoretical awareness, developed also by Galileo and Descartes, that fundamental features of nature can be described as a system; mathematically. Hence the world, by virtue of its capacity to be modelled mathematically, is understood to be separate from human consciousness and is independent of thought.

Copernican Revolutions

Actually, the so-called Copernican Revolution has two meanings. There is its literal sense in the emergence of a modern, scientific and heliocentric world view. And there is a metaphorical use in philosophy. In this second sense it is often used to name the so-called transcendental turn taken by philosophy from Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century onwards and which the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux has recently named Correlationism. This Correlationism (of which Meillassoux is critical) claims that any thought about the world independent of that thought is impossible. That is, we can never know what the world is like in-itself. This philosophical use of the Copernican revolution as a metaphor originated from a comment in the second preface to The Critique of Pure Reason (1787) where Kant proposes to do for metaphysics what Copernicus had done for cosmology, namely effect a sudden revolution leading to a paradigm shift in thought itself. In On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543) Copernicus proposed a heliocentric system that reversed the commonly accepted Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe. Kant states that whereas previously it had been assumed that knowledge conforms to its objects he will develop a metaphysics that begins from the supposition that objects conform to knowledge. From this emerges the transcendental turn that modifies metaphysical questions directed toward things in-themselves, which is claimed to be impossible, into questions of how knowledge of the world is possible.

However, this is the violent contradiction that leads to these ‘outrages’ of modernity. So, whilst science allows for the possibility of a mind independent of reality, philosophy insists that thought about that reality in-itself is impossible. The metaphor itself is paradoxical as it positions humans at the centre of their philosophical systems yet at the edge of their scientific ones.

And yet, to not accept this and to deny scientific revolutions positions one as a crank, crackpot or conspiracy theorist. The snag is going to be, then, how to reconcile those two domains: knowledge and experience. And there, perhaps, we have a model of what work the artwork can do.
[From an essay on Niamh McCann's work]

Saturday, 24 October 2015

“Art World Systems: Network, Medium, Platform,” Francis Halsall, Kris Cohen, and Johanna Gosse in Conversation, DXARTS, Seattle

“Art World Systems: Network, Medium, Platform,” Francis Halsall, Kris Cohen, and Johanna Gosse in Conversation, DXARTS, Seattle

In this public exchange, art historians Francis Halsall (National College of Art and Design, Dublin), Kris Cohen (Reed College) and Johanna Gosse (Columbia University) will discuss the art world in terms of systems. They take as their starting point three recent books on the state of the contemporary art world: Pamela Lee’s Forgetting the Art World (2012), David Joselit’s After Art (2012), and Lane Relyea’s Your Everyday Art World (2013).

After brief introductions of each text, the speakers will embark on a conversation tackling issues such as the art world’s embeddedness in a networked, global system and shifting conceptions of the artistic medium, from specific materiality to technical support to platform.

Questions they consider will include:
*what specific forms of knowledge does art continue to offer as its historical definitions, categories, and criteria have transformed, and often, faded into obsolescence, much like the technologies it would critique?
*To what extent should art and art discourse, as resources for getting our bearings in the present, mesh with and respond to technological change?
*How are the interconnections between art and technology inevitable within networked life, part of the very structure of destablizing change;
*and if they are inevitable, and if art and technology are not opposed but forced together in the medium of history, where does critique begin and what shapes should it take?

Friday, November 6th, 5:30 PM
DXARTS Media Lab
Raitt Hall 205
The University of Washington, Seattle

This event is sponsored by the Simpson Center for the Humanities, and hosted by the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) at the University of Washington.
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Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Out There, Thataway (curated show at CCA Derry)

From the press release:

CCA is pleased to present Out There, Thataway, a group exhibition curated through dialogue between Francis Halsall, Declan Long, and CCA that includes work by Stephen Brandes, Nathan Coley, Aleana Egan, Fergus Feehily, Kevin Gaffney, Rana Hamadeh, and Merlin James.

Out There, Thataway has two conceptual starting points: 

First, a concern with imagining or navigating territories that are ‘beyond knowledge’;
Second, an interest in ways that metaphors of geography shape thinking and behaviour.

The exhibition takes its title from the last words spoken at the end of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’: they are Kirk’s vague but determined directions as the Enterprise begins to venture further out than ever before beyond known frontiers.

Out There, Thataway opens Saturday, August 8th at 7pm and runs until 26th September 2015. The exhibition will be accompanied by commissioned playlists and a public programme of events.

This exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

See here for more detailed information on the show

And download a conversation between the curatorial team on some themes here at  

Image: Stephen Brandes, selected slideshow
still from The Last Travelogue of Albert Sitzfleisch.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Wasteland: Poetry and Collaborative Systems

“The strange, the surprising, is of course essential to art; but art has to create a new world, and a new world must have a new structure.”
T.S.Eliot, ‘London Letter’, (Published in The Dial Magazine, 1921)

Collaboration always comes with a threat. But this risk is also the source of its richest reward. The threat we face when we collaborate is the loss of identity.

By necessity any working relationship will involve the emergence of a new creative agent that no-one will have full control over. This is the collaboration itself; a system with its own volition, direction and tastes. This system requires its partners to negotiate with it; perhaps yield to it. It asks them to test their aesthetic decisions and justify their choices. By necessity, collaboration forces new ways of thinking and making. It pitches participants into a situation of creative antagonism in which everyone cajoles each other into producing what nobody is quite expecting.

Between 1921 and 1922 TS Eliot and Ezra Pound worked together on the poem which would become the signal work of modernist poetry. The Wasteland was produced by the creative antagonism of two writers working together. Eliot acknowledged his debt by dedicating the poem in 1925 to “Il miglior fabbro” (“the better craftsman”).

The annotated manuscripts make for astonishing reading.

They show how the poem developed from a negotiation between the multiple comments of Eliot and Pound (with additional editorial comments from Valerie, Eliot’s wife and editor.)  Under Pound’s guidance whole sections were cut, moved around and re-sculpted. The title changes from “He Do the Police in Different Voices.” The whole first page goes – cancelled by with a single pencil line. Throughout we can see how the verses took shape by being meticulously crafted into a self-contained world where everything works together with elegant precision. What is left over from this conversation is a poem in which it’s unclear as to who deleted or added what; and who should take full authorial credit. We can’t be sure where one writer’s voice begins or another ends. The manuscript can be seen variously through different perceptual modes. Its a visual tabula rasa embedded with the multiple scrawled indices of poetic creation and a collage overlaid with the scraps and fragments of reality that have been pasted onto its surface. But it’s also a refrain of multiple voices that sometimes negate each other and yet sometimes reverberate in a brittle chorus. Much like the final poem itself there is a deep-seated ambiguity of authorship and identity as multiple voices clamour to be heard. What have been rendered uncertain are the relationships between the idioms of: high and low-brow; classical and vernacular; modernity and tradition.

Something of the spirit of the authors’ relationship is revealed in a note by Pound on a handwritten section which reads: “Bad- but can’t attack until I get typescript.”

It reveals an interlocutor who is eager to engage but also pass judgment and “attack” the weakness of their friend. Pound slashes out Eliot’s use of the word “perhaps” and writes “perhaps be damned” and “if you know, know damned well or else you don’t.”

A lot of the text is dismissed as flabby or unnecessary with comments like: “verse not interesting enough as verse to warrant so much of it.”

Pound both consoles and chastises Eliot with the various “OKs” and “Echts” scrawled thorough the text. He takes him to task for the “demotic” use of words like “abominable” and challenges him to resist cliché and commonplace. “Too easy” Pound warns of a phrase too easily reached. Another is “too loose.” Laziness, it seems, is not to be tolerated. Pound takes Eliot to task for using the word “may” with the scathing comment: “make up yr. mind” and is contemptuous of the equivocation suggested by the use of the word perhaps: “perhaps be damned” he pithily notes. Elsewhere we can see that Eliot rewrites and rewrites until he gets the comment “OK”

The poem, clearly, would not be anything like its published version without these conversations. In a different context it would be easy to read such cajoling through the logic of power and authority. Such language could be read as hurtful and unproductive; undermining and antagonistic. However what we can see instead is them both using language to build a new world around themselves which only they inhabit.

Much of the vocabulary is incomprehensible to outsiders. For example one comment seems to be about the rhythm of a line: “3 lines Too tum-pum at a stretch” a further comment asks: “Why this Blot and Scutcheon between 1922 and lil.’”

Another remark warns that the line “Filled all the desert with inviolable voice” is “too penty” which is ambiguous and the contemporary reader can only hazard a guess as to what it really means. Is it a recommendation to disrupt the pentamic beats of repeated syllables perhaps? Or is this a warning that the “inviolable” voice mimics the stridency of the Pentecostal imagery of renewal that Eliot used elsewhere but is rejecting in The Wasteland. We can never be sure. This is the private language of intimate communication. It talks of shared values and practices. It is a new system of communication that is being brought into being through their collaboration. This is the system of The Wasteland; a system that is also a world unto itself.

[quotes from T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, Ed. Valerie Eliot, (London: Faber and Faber, 1971)]