Monday, 12 December 2011

Harman for artists

Thanks to this is from Rob Murphy ( ) who was responding, in part, to a recent discussion on systems and conspiracy; he raises some interesting discussion issues.

I see harman as an ‘Absurdist’ whether he intends it or not.

 The first clue to this is his self proclaimed ‘False Theory’ method of taking a theory, and running with it to its sharpest point to discover the possibility for that theory as well as its failing along the way. Which he undoubtedly uses and supplements with his use of words like ‘weird’. 
And the sharpest point for me in simple terms for SR is that objects inhabit a realm unknowable to us, but to which we can speculate. He seems to be doing a specific thing for me here.

 He is saying that he has come to some sort of temporal structured conclusion about another realm that’s non-human centric, which lies beyond our consciousness. That is fine.
And that we can speculate that this world of objects could inhabit its own metaphysical problems and so forth. This is saying to me that if something is irreducible, or has an unknowable inner kernel, it is therefore meaningless, in realist terms, in human philosophy. And may very well be useless for change or knowledge in an object’s philosophy. He seems to say, in an absurdist reading, that if we can’t know of something, and attempt to create a speculative world in which objects subsist, we won’t find knowledge there either because of the limitations of our knowledge of worldly the objects in the first place. And that is assuming that objects care about or have versions of metaphysics and existential concern and that we could adequately translate these things through our own philosophies, description and art.

 Harman is brilliant to me in very grounded, realist terms. He argues that there is a speculative world (and all that entails presumably) through his speculative realist ‘false theory’. This could be read that he is giving us the seeds of possibility that this speculative realm of objects may have their own search for meaning in a meaningless world and thus an object-absurdity. In this reading, he undermines relations, translation, concepts of conceivable realist occasionalism, the desein of the human and speculative objects all with a ‘shadowy’ absurdist tinge.

 The preamble to this being that we can’t find logic/meaning/metaphysical realism through our consciousness or logical reasoning, so the idea in the hope for objects to find meaning for us in our absence, or themselves is arguably absurdist metaphysics.

It is also why I would agree, he is not a pansychist, because he has an inherent absurdist view on metaphysics. (Although I don’t know why he refutes pansychism and doesn’t apply his false theory to that too, but maybe nobody would see him as a realist philosopher then and more of an L.Ron Hubbard type character).

The hope for my sculptures is that they give an account of the comedic horror and absurdity of attempts in art to metaphysically translate, understand or even use metaphysics as a form of investigative practice. The idea in SR of pursuing anything through anything else other than itself is futile and absurd, and this lies at the base of this. I am drawn to SR because I believe it is an intentional object of the human and object world that has been more self descriptive and transparent than any other object we know, and with that as a starting point, we can interrogate the reality of everything else. 

That is why sculpturally I intend to push things through other things / objects through objects, for example: new age metaphysics through catholicism in school gap years, basic understanding of the universe through death, metaphysics through objects by objects and so on. In the attempt to show visually the futility of our current standards of tool use and the retarding of change and newness, through self reflexivity in art, enable.
 Please forgive the fragmentary thoughts and english above, and the most definite affliction I have most definitely carried out on the terminology of philosophy, and more than likely than not, the horror I have done to Harman’s philosophy. But I am just trying to see how it’s relevant to the process of making in art and to me. You cant make an omelet and all that. I probably don’t even believe half the stuff I argue for most of the time.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Philosophy in the Present: Žižek and Badiou

Philosophy in the Present
A public seminar on the Žižek and Badiou debate

Fri 16th Dec. 2011. 11.30am to 1.00pm: The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

Organized by MA Art in The Contemporary World ( ) in collaboration with The Hugh Lane Gallery.

This is the last in a series of special seminars, exploring themes arising from the exhibitions Civil Rights etc., DISTURBANCE and Tim Robinson: The
Decision. These seminars are free and open to the public, although places may be limited and should be booked in advance.

The discussion, lead by Francis Halsall/ Declan Long (NCAD) will use the following text as its starting point: Badiou & Žižek, Philosophy in the Present, (Polity Press, 2009).

For more information contact: Jessica O'Donnell: (  at The Hugh Lane or Declan Long ( and Francis Halsall ( at NCAD.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Social Systems in The Wire at: All the Pieces Matter: A Night of The Wire

All the Pieces Matter: A Night of The Wire
 Friday 25th November, 20:00

Admission €5, BYOB
Block T, Smithfield, 1-4 Haymarket, Smithfield Dublin 7

Francis Halsall, NCAD: "Social Systems in The Wire"
Niall Heffernan, UCC: "It's all in the Game: Game Theory in The Wire"
Daniel Fitzpatrick: ""The City as Body in Deadwood and The Wire"
Barry Shanahan, UCD: "Authenticity and Representation in The Wire"

Screening of a Mystery Episode

Followed by Music Inspired by The Wire

My paper is outlined below. I'm going to think about, again, how bodies disrupt the hygiene of Luhmann's sytems.

In this short presentation I discuss how we can use The Wire to think about Niklas Luhmann’s Social Systems Theory.

First, I introduce briefly the main aspects of Luhmann’s account of social systems.

Second, I show how this is demonstrated by the different social systems in The Wire (for example, The Media system, The Legal System, The Economic system etc.).

Third, I look at some examples of characters that migrate between different systems (For example: Stringer Bell, who is studying economics; and Roland ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski who leaves the police force to become a teacher).

Fourth, my conclusion is that such characters show where Luhmann’s account breaks down. I argue that the figure of the human (quasi-transcendental) body migrates between different systems; and in doing so disrupts their operational hygiene.

The account given by the German Sociologist Niklas Luhmann of modern society is that is that it is comprised of a variety of sub-systems that are operatively closed and functionally distinct from one another. These systems include the economic, legal, scientific, religious, educational, mass media and art systems. These systems are all represented in various ways in The Wire.

As we see in The Wire, each system operates according to its own internal and self-defined codes by which it observes its environment (the world) and re-describes that environment in its own terms. So, for example, the economic system (such as we see in the system of drug dealing and ‘re-ups’ on the corners), observes and re-describes its environment terms of economic value whilst the legal system observes and re-describes its environment in terms of legality and illegality.

It’s the aspect of Luhmann’s description of society that it is functional differentiated toward which the standard criticisms of social systems theory are directed. Three aspects of these criticisms are:

First, that the systems-theoretical account of society reduces it to a number of social systems that are autonomous from one another, and that by virtue of that autonomy not only is no explanation is given for how the systems might interact with one another, but also the role of individual humans in those systems.

Second, that systems theory is radically anti-humanist. There is no place for humans in these systems and systems-theory subordinates the human subject to the systems of society removes human agency from those systems and ignores the inter-subjectivity of sensuous bodies interacting in a shared lifeworld.

Third, that the systems theoretical description of society is radically constructivist. That is it denies the possibility of any concrete social reality outside of the systems of observation. So, whilst the economic system observes in terms of fiscal value, the law system in terms of justice and so on, there is no extra-systemic “reality” to which they are referring.

What this means is that it is not possible, Luhmann argues, to have access to reality that is independent from the observation of that reality; and that observation will always be performed from the perspective of a situated system. He says:

“The question whether it is the world as it is or the world as observed by the system remains for the system itself undecidable. Reality, then, may be an illusion, but the illusion itself is real.”[1]

These 3 points of criticism are clearly interrelated. They form the basis of Habermas’ sustained critique of Luhmann’s systems-theory as a “Technocractic.” That is, one which negated human experience and reduced the production of human meaning to a functional principle within an operational system that instrumentalises the lifeworlds of inter-subjective human meanings. This is, in short, the condition of the characters in The Wire.

[1] Luhmann, ‘Why Does Society Describe Itself as Postmodern?” in William Rasch and Cary Wolfe, Observing Complexity, (University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pg. 37

Monday, 7 November 2011

Last Systems Session - summary

Thanks to all participants for a lively discussion at last week’s seminar discussion. I was particularly pleased that there are quite a few disciplinary positions represented around the table including philosophy, art history, art practice, information studies and so on; this should lead to rich discussions as the seminar develops over the coming months.

At this session we outlined some of the main issues that seemed to be at stake in the discussion. This included some key terms. It was agreed, then, that these would form the central themes for our future conversations around the Prince and the Wolf. This means that we will be able to move away from the central text (and read and talk around the topic) whilst also keeping our focus on the main text.

The main topics that we teased out are listed below. And it was agreed that we would discuss Object/ Relation at the next session (Nov. 23rd). If anyone has comments and suggestions such as those for further reading, then here is the place to post them.

Object/ Relation

Object/ Aggregate


Disciplinary and Discursive Issues: (i) The reception of Speculative Realism in other disciplines (ii) Historical precedents

Metaphysics and Realism

Infinite Regress

Potentiality and Change



Metaphor and Translation

Monday, 24 October 2011

Event this week

[might be relevant to the systems seminar]

Second Nature at the Lab, Foley Street
October 26th 1830-2030
to book a place: email

This series of presentations provides a public overview and incite into some of the issues engaged by the show Quantified SelfQuantified Self brings together a number of artists working across media and performance with Shimmer Research, developers of wearable sensors with multivariate applications to kinematic, biometric and context-aware data. Forming part of the remit of Innovation Dublin, artists were invited to collaborate with Shimmer technicians to speculatively engage the capabilities of the wireless platform.

Second Nature is a response to the show, and features a number of short presentations from experts in areas such as artificial intelligence, embodied cognition, philosophy, anthropology, art and computer science. This will include Kieran Daly from Shimmer Research Labs, Dr John Kelleher (DIT) speaking on the embodied turn in Cognitive Science, Tim Stott (DIT) who will provide an overview of Foucault’s theory of Biopower, Dr. Cathal Gurrin from DCU’s lifelogging research lab, Musician Mark Linnane, and Quantified Self artists Michelle Browne and Saoirse Higgins, among others.

With the proliferation of intelligent systems for the monitoring and aggregation of human-generated content, including psychographic, geographic and biometric data, we are faced with a number of interrelated issues. How have bodies across history influenced not only cognitive processes but the ongoing design of sentient systems? What new forms of self-knowledge might emerge through networked and pervasive media? As life itself is integrated with artificial systems concerned with storage of information, processing and decision making, what might the future implications be for human cognition?

Kieran Daly – Dr Kieran Daly is VP of Shimmer, developers of a wireless sensor platform that records and transmits physiological, kinetic and context-aware data in real-time. These technologies were used in the QS show.
John Kelleher – Dr. John Kelleher is a Lecturer in the school of computing in DIT, with a focus in Artificial Intelligence and Computational Linguistics. Research interests include embodied cognition, and human computer interaction.
Saoirse Higgins – Saoirse Higgins is a Media artist currently based between Dublin and Manchester where she leads a BA in creative multimedia at MMU. Her background is in product design with a Masters in Interactive Media from the Royal College of Art, London and an MSc in Media Arts and Sciences from MIT Media Lab, Boston. Saoirse is interested in revealing some of the connections between our visions of the world we live in, our expectations for the future and the technology we use to help us with this. She explores the contested spaces of public-private, man-machine, man-nature.
Tim Stott – Tim Stott is a writer, and art critic based in Dublin. He’s currently an assistant Lecturer in the history of art in DIT, and an associate researcher in the Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media, close to completing a PhD on the politics of play and participation.
Cathal Gurrin – Dr Cathal Gurrin is a lecturer in the school of computing in DCU, director of the human media archives group and a collaborating investigator in the Clarity centre for sensor web technologies. This space has facilitated his ongoing research into lifelogging.
Michelle Browne –Michelle Browne is an artist and curator living in Dublin, currently on residence in the Leitrim Sculpture centre. She is the founder of Out of Site, a public and live art festival in Dublin.
Owen Drumm – Is a technologist, designer and all round guru. He has worked at the interface of audio and technology. As well as designing state-of-the-art digital mixing desks and audio processing software he has collaborated with many major recording artists such as Def Leppard and Enya.  Owen founded and runs Rapt Audio and Owen Drumm Designs.
Mark Linnane – Mark Linnane is a video artist, creative technologist and researcher. His work focuses on the relationship between physical gesture, embodied cognition and perception and is realized using image processing and audio synthesis tools. Currently a lecturer in the MSc in music and media technologies in Trinity College Dublin, Mark is completing a PHD in embodied Music Cognition and Sonic Interaction design.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Next Systems Session: The Prince and the Wolf

After a shorter first meeting the Systems seminar group will begin in earnest on Nov. 2nd (2011) at the Gradcam building, (just off Thomas St.) and the next sessions this calendar year are Nov. 23rd, Dec 14th. Sessions begin at 5:15pm.

The general starting point of the seminar was “systems” thought of in connection with phenomenology, technology and the body. This has now expanded to include debates related to Speculative Realism/ Object Orientated Philosophy.

Specifically: as agreed, the key text this year will be the Harman and Latour debate in The Prince and the Wolf.

We’ll begin discussing this text at the next session and take things from there.

Further information and discussion will be channeled through this blog.
 I’d be most grateful if you could pass this on to anyone who may be interested – all are welcome.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Non Compliance?

Just last week in London, I had a strange and jarring experience. I was waiting for someone in Trafalgar Square and decided to sit on a wall just below the “fourth plinth” (where the Yinka Shonibare piece ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ was on show.) After a few minutes I was approached by two men in semi-official looking jumpers and peaked hats. They asked me, politely, if I would mind getting down from where I was sitting.
“Yes I would mind”
I said.

They asked again politely; and again I, also politely, declined. I gave my reasons: that I was doing nothing illegal, or in any way offensive and that I didn’t want to move. I then asked them who they were and was told that they were employed by “GLA.” (I later found out that this was the Greater London Authority who had contracted the private company Chubb Security Personnel Limited.)
“So, you’re not police, you can’t arrest me then.” I said.
“Well you see sir, it’s a health and safety issue. We’re just doing our job.”

This back and forth went on for a little bit longer, during which time they remained calm, polite yet insistent whilst I became increasingly upset, irrational and incoherent. It ended with me getting down and shouting swear words at them as they laughed and walked off. My miniature protest and attempt at non-compliance had been utterly inconsequential. It had been a pointless, petulant bluster of inchoate impoliteness that had no effect whatsoever.

A few moments later I saw them chatting with some adults and taking photographs for them of their kids clambering over the lions down in the square.

I had found the intervention of these “Heritage Wardens” threatening and troubling and had been unsettled by the whole experience. (I'm not the only one and you can see one of the guys who approached me at work here.)

The claim that it was a health and safety issue seems to point to what’s at stake; because it’s in the regulation of the body, specifically, to which the concerns of health and safety are directed.

It was my body that was precariously balanced on the classical balustrades; and it was that which was being challenged. I think this is what I was hinting towards in the last post when I suggested that bodies can migrate between and disrupt different (and closed) social systems.

Husserl puts this as the body being involved in a thingly nexus:
We have seen that in all experience of spatio-thingly Objects, the body ‘is involved’ as the perceptual organ of the experiencing subject.” (Ideas II, § 36)

There are at least three implications to this involvement in a thingly nexus.

First we might think about how a nexus of things might be conceived of in terms of systems – a system of objects perhaps (although with qualifications to Baudrillard’s account.)

Second, when demands are made of me, or infringements, then they are enacted both within this system of objects and on the surface of my body. (The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration.(Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History)

And third the body is also transcendent, or at least quasi-transcendent. Clearly this is Merleau-Ponty’s well known insight in The Phenomenology of Perception (especially part 1). But, crucially, this is also what Husserl means when he says that that the body is constituted in a “double way”, as physical matter and as “sense”. This doubling means it can resist. It is coiled up with a potential to disrupt the easy flow of capital and information within social systems. And hence, it forms the origin of a politics. This would mean, then, a politics that is grounded in what Husserl calls the “physical-aesthesiological unity” of the body. He says of this unity:

In the abstract, I can separate the physical and aesthesiological strata but can do so precisely only in the abstract. In the concrete perception, the Body is there as a new sort of unity of apprehension. It is constituted as an Objectivity in its own right, which fits under the formal-universal concept of reality, as a thing that preserves its identical properties over and against changing external circumstances.” (Ideas II, § 40)

To make a leap – it is a critique of politics that are abstract which forms the basis of Zizek’s critique of the “lost causes” of liberal politics. In this section his focus is Simon Critchley:

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil (since they also know it that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude is easily acceptable for those in power: "so wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in ~ unfortunately, however, we live in the real world, where we are just honestly doing what is possible"), but, on the contrary, to bombard those
in power with strategically well-selected precise, finite demands which
cannot allow for the same excuse.” (Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes, pg. 349-50)

Which when I read it recently (he is particularly critical of Critchley’s defence of humour as an ethical and political strategy of desublimation) immediately reminded me of that great exchange in Manhattan:
“Man: ‘I heard you quit your job?’

Isaac: ‘Yeah, a real self-destructive impulse. You know, I want
to write a book, so I, so I ... Has anybody read that
nazis are going to march in New Jersey, you know? I
read this in the newspaper, we should go down there, get
some guys together, you know, get some bricks and
baseball bats and really explain things to them.’

Man: ‘There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed
page of the Times. It is devastating.’

Isaac: ‘Well, well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but
bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the

Woman: ‘Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical

Isaac: ‘No, physical force is always better with Nazis. Cos
it's hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.’
(Woody Allen – Manhattan)

It’s hard to satirize a guy in shiny boots. And ones in a jumpers and peaked hats too. We need to think about what forms of non-compliance are most appropriate. And it’s my guess that swearing and sculptures are equally inconsequential.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

That is the Living

Just recently I found a young guy’s passport on the street and thought that the most sensible thing to do was contact the embassy of his country directly, explain that it had been found, and then send it to them. All of which I did and then thought nothing more if it.

A few days later the following email arrived (I’d left my card in the package) which I've cut and pasted directly here:

“Hi Dr Francis,

How is the life?

I am really happy for your kindness. I really appreciate that! I'd like to thank personally and give a little gift to you. Would I might meet up you next week where you work (National College)? Let me kow when is possible, ok?

I wanna see you. I was going to see my girlfriend in London, on the way to the airport the passaport fell down from my jacket, fortunately you found it but my girlfriend didnt believe that and we just broke up. That is the living! In addition, I'm very glad because my mother will arrive next week and we are going to travel for 15 days. Probably, if you havent found it, the trip couldnt be possible!

I dont know you yet but I am sure you are a woderful person.


(If you like brazilian stuffs, my mother will arrive on friday, then we can meet that day) :)”(sic)

I turned down the chance to meet by making some excuse and the last I heard from him was a follow up message.

“Hello Dr Francis,
  One more time, THANKS A LOT. I wish all the positive energy in your life. Have a good work!
  All the best for your!

I’ve been thinking about this since and as to why I found the whole experience so touching and revealing.

The email itself is a micro-masterpiece of empathy and compact storytelling -  “my girlfriend didnt believe that and we just broke up. That is the living!

And it’s astounding how much it revealed. One could quickly work out his age, hair and eye colour, how long he was going to stay in the country (from an attached student visa) and so on from the passport, but the note tells a much deeper story. It seems to disclose an entire system of relations that exist, for the most part, outside of my own network. This is a system that has an almost completely different rhythm to mine, yet one that can touch me. We can, through this fragment, glimpse another intentional horizon as it, briefly, interpenetrates our own. And from this one can move outwards to imagine a whole world populated with other such little epiphanies and minor narratives.

Luhmann describes this in his characteristically dry and wry way as Interpenetration, that is:

“Interpenetration exists when [penetration] occurs reciprocally, that is when both systems enable each other by introducing their already-constituted complexity into each other. In penetration one can observe how the behaviour of the penetrating system is co-dertermined by the receiving system (and eventually proceeds aimlessly and eratically outside this system, just like ants that have lost their ant hill.) In interpenetration, the receiving system also reacts to the structural formation of the penetrating system, and it does so in a twofold way, internally and externally.”
[Art as a Social System, trans. Bednarz jr/ Baecker, pg. 213]

In Luhmann’s model consciousness is a psychic system and thus like every other system. That is, it is operatively closed to its environment and other systems. What it does is observe, or be irritated by, other systems. His description of communication is that it doesn’t happen between systems, but inside them. Communication is an occurrence, specific to a particular system, that generates meaning within that system from the unity of a message as well as its communication and reception. In other words, it is not passed over like a parcel (or a passport) but rather generated by the internal operations of each system.

Now, of course, I know next to nothing about this guy. I had a look at his passport photograph, but have since forgotten what he looked like along with his date of birth and even his full name. So it seems that Luhmann is somewhat right. I can only observe and reconstruct this external horizon from within the perspective of my own.

It would be all too easy to read the incident as an exemplar of the forms of contemporary communication which are all mediated at a distance (all the transactions took place by phone, courier and email) and through the abstracted circuits of information exchange, commerce and control.

Yet I still have a nagging feeling that this doesn’t quite capture what happened. I wasn’t only an observer here, but an actor in a network. I didn’t just observe, I was touched too.

At the very least it seems that when systems collide the aftershocks of those interpenetrations crackle, flash and fizz through the circuits long after the moment when they kissed off one another. Perhaps this is what Roy Ascott meant when he said that there is "Love in the Telematic Embrace".

I think the key to this lies in the passport. This was not just an ephemeral instance of communication that emerged internally within different systems but a physical thing that was passed between systems. A gift, perhaps, exchanged without commercial value. Or an object, whose stuff-ness passed between different systems, and existed in both. Disrupting their hygiene.

This is only the beginning of this thought, but my hunch is that bodies are the same. They too migrate between Luhmann’s different and closed systems whilst also disrupting their hygiene. Like sand in Vaseline.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

System seminar continues

As the group discussed at our last meeting before the summer, the “System” seminar (subtitle: The body and its systems: phenomenology, technology and modernity) will take the Latour/ Harman debate as its sole theme.

So, we’ll be reading The Prince and the Wolf

 The dates are now set, and will not change. The 1st session will be on Wed. Oct. 12th (2011) at 5.15pm in the Gradcam Building, near to NCAD, Dublin. And will follow every three weeks after this.

Also, I want to channel all activity for the seminar through this blog. The previous discussions are available to view here on the old ACW site  NB - please don't post anything more here.

Please pass this on to anyone who you think will find it interesting and useful.


Merleau-Ponty outlines what is at stake in the phenomenological reduction in the opening pages of The Phenomenology of Perception

“The best formulation of the reduction is probably that given by Eugen Fink, Husserl’s assistant, when he spoke of ‘wonder’ in the face of the world. Reflection does not withdraw from the world towards the unity of consciousness as the world’s basis; it steps back to watch the forms of transcendence fly up like sparks from a fire; it slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice; it alone is consciousness of the world because it reveals that world as strange and paradoxical.”

However, whilst he argues that the phenomenological reduction is never fully achievable and that “the most important lesson which the reduction teaches us is the impossibility of a complete reduction,”
he also claims that this is no reason to not incorporate it into the phenomenological method and that: “the incompleteness of the reduction …is not an obstacle to the reduction, it is the reduction itself.”

In short Merleau-Ponty argues that although a complete indifference toward the natural attitude is not possible, he seems to prefigure the claims of Speculative Realism that the attempt to do so is necessary.

At this point, perhaps its helpful to compare Dan Zahavi’s claims that philosophy in the guise of phenomenology should suspend naivety (which is what the epoché does) and Graham Harman’s claim for Speculative Realism at the very beginning of The Quadruple Object that philosophy should attempt to recapture naivety.

“Instead of beginning with radical doubt, we start from naivete. What philosophy shares with the lives of scientists, bankers, and animals is that all are concerned with objects… Once we begin from naivete rather than doubt, objects immediately take centre stage… But whereas the naïve standpoint of [The Quadruple Object] makes no initial claim as to which of these objects is real or unreal, the labor of the intellect is usually taken to be critical rather than naieve. Instead of accepting this inflated menagerie of entities, critical thinking debunks objects and denies their autonomy.”

I think that there are 2 ways in which to read these differing accounts of naivety.

First that aesthetic activities continue the work of phenomenology by implementing the epoché which is, as I am arguing here, comparable to aesthetic experience. Hence, my claim that the epoché is a form of aesthetic reflection and a means by which naivety is recaptured. My point here is that naivety is very difficult if not impossible to achieve. And can only be done so when the natural attitude is suspended.

Second that whilst continuing phenomenology Speculative Realism moves beyond what was ever possible via the phenomenological method. It does so by shifting its attention away from the correlation of mind and world to the realms that lie beyond this correlation and about which we can only speculate on, tell fictions about and creatively imagine.

So, Speculative Realism aspires to grasp the weirdness of the worlds of objects as they exist outside of the network of human meanings, and beyond their presence to human consciousness. This means to approach the world from a position of naiveté in which our own interested correlations within a system of objects is suspended.

Further, as already mentioned, this sounds very similar to the move of the epoché in Husserl who claims (in the Krisis) that through it a new way of experiencing, of thinking of theorizing is opened to the philosopher.

However the bracketing of the natural attitude required for the epoche is difficult if not impossible to achieve. And this leads to my main claim here that aesthetic experience is a route to such bracketing; hence my claim that objects and spaces of art have the potential to be philosophically meaningful.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

What can be expected from art?

It sometimes seems that too much is expected of art. Especially now. The accepted truths that it will provide salvation or perhaps even revolution in troubled times are often repeated.

And it also seems that not enough is expected of art. Especially now. High expectations are shunned in favour of accepted truths: that art’s purpose is as Matisse said, to be an armchair for tired businessmen; that art is merely a high-end commodity and an interior design solution; or perhaps that art is a career opportunity for the makers, curators, writers and their entourages who are supported by its various revenues, support structures and reputational economies.

Both these expectations are underwritten by two different understanding of what art works are and what art practice can do. Having taught for several years in an art school, I find that the majority of students’ expectations for their practice, at least when they begin their studies, rests on two presuppositions which are in simultaneous yet contradictory tension with one another.

On the one hand it’s often claimed that the meaning of works of art lies in their expression of MY feelings, MY culture, and MY politics. In other words it’s thought that works of art give particular expression to an individual subject and their aesthetic, social and political aspirations. This is supported by an expressive theory of art. This means that individual desires for salvation or revolution could be expressed and given form in emancipatory or revolutionary works of art.

On the other hand it’s often claimed that the meaning of works of art is nothing to do with what the individual artist. YOU make of it whatever YOU want, whenever YOU want. Meaning lies instead in the myriad contexts in which art becomes embedded. This is supported by a contextual theory of art in which works of art are in a continual relationship with their contexts and their meanings are open and fluid.

Both of these negate the absolute strangeness and radical muteness of art.

I want to suggest something different. That we can expect a lot from art but not so much that we are disappointed when the world doesn’t change around it.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Disabling Potential of Art

It’s a commonly held criticism of contemporary art that it’s exclusive, alienating, obscure, elitist and so on.

Some (Declan McGonagle for example) have gone so far as to claim that there is something, quite literally, disabling about the spaces of art. That is that they impose social limits on their participants; and these limits manifest themselves by imposing aesthetic inhibitors on the bodies of visitors which manifest themselves as actual sensual and bodily restrictions.

This thinking often manifests itself in those practices (be they curatorial, artistic, pedagogical) that use the rhetoric of populism and inclusion in attempts to make experiences that are as comprehensible or as likeable as possible. I notice that on the website for the forthcoming Dublin Contemporary jamboree there is the demand to “ENGAGE!” and thatDublin Contemporary 2011 has devised an innovative education programme to facilitate and encourage public engagement with every aspect of the exhibition. Open to all…”

I have a hunch, though, that it’s all those things that make art problematic, and unlikable, and unliked which are the very same things that make it interesting. It is precisely because it’s disabling that art offers an opportunity to think about the world in different ways to that which we naturally would.
Luhmann uses rhetoric which suggests this when he claims that art retards perception. It doesn’t offer clarity but rather makes our experiences strange and perhaps wonderful to us:

Art aims to retard perception and render it reflexive – lingering upon the object in visual art (in striking contrast to everyday perception) and slowing down reading in literature, particularly in lyric poetry…. Works of art by contrast [to everyday perception] employ perceptions exclusively for the purpose of letting the observer participate in the invention of invented forms.” 
(Art as a Social System)

 Merleau-Ponty does something very similar; and I think it’s not coincidence that his two most famous examples are modernist art and the pathological, disabled body (particularly that of the war victim Schneider.) For Merleau-Ponty, then, it is precisely in this strangeness and oddness of the experience of art that our perception becomes almost like that of a disability. In art our perception is retarded and made available to us as an object of perception itself. In an experience of art as art, in which certain aspects of normal experience are suspended, or bracketed, art becomes a type of philosophical practice that the artist and the viewer jointly participate in. (There’s more of this in the essay on pathology, aesthetics and epoché posted here.)

If there is a philosophical significance to art objects and the spaces they occupy, then perhaps this significance lies not in that they illustrate certain theories such as how to live a better life, or what the role of politics is (even though they might). To think this is to think that the significance of art lies in its didacticism. I don’t think this. It is rather that the spaces and objects of art put us in, they demand of (or perhaps extort from) us, a particular frame of mind which is inherently philosophical.

I propose, then, that art objects have the potential to be a form of what Graham Harman calls a Guerilla Metaphysics; that is, forms of thought that allow us to speculate on the occult strangeness of the world and its objects.

And perhaps, then, this is an implication of Harman’s recent claims that: “Aesthetics may be a branch of metaphysics,” and that “aesthetics becomes first philosophy.”