Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Making and Matching paper published

I’ve been working on a piece for ages which has now seen the light of day in one form here at the Journal of Art Historiography. It’s about aesthetic judgment in art historical writing. My claim is that a tacit aesthetic judgment is at play in choosing what theoretical model is applied to art – in so far as the model is made to “match” the object.

My feeling is that this has wider implications than art history (although that is an excellent place to test this theory out). Not least, I will argue, in thinking about a tacit aesthetics in systems-theory and the will-to-system. More on this to follow...

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Geology and Flat Ontology: Bryant and De Landa

The first of the new systems seminars at Gradcam began last week with a fascinating discussion on De Landa’ s ‘Immanence and Transcendence in the Genesis of Form’ [South Atlantic Quarterly, 96:3]and parts of Bryant's The Democarcy of Objects.

Alan has already posted some initial thoughts here which I'm responding to..

There were 2 elements I found particularly exciting about the reading and discussion; both of which are helpful in thinking through the idea of system as an absolute metaphor; that is a basic form of organization.

1 – Metaphor. De Landa gives the following description of his use of ‘Strata’ and ‘Meshworks’ as forms of organization: “This raises the question of whether some (or most) applications of these terms are purely metaphoric. There is undoubtedly some element of metaphor in such applications, but, the appearance of linguistic analogy notwithstanding, I believe that a deep, objective isomorphism underlies the different instantiations of strata and meshworks.” He invokes a “deeper, objective level” at which isomorphic connections occur.

Alan’s question in regard to this is a pertinent one – does this lead to a circularity of thought in which a deep structure is presupposed in advance of its revelation; ‘can De Landa move from metaphor to real isomorphic systems without too much concern?’ I’m not sure. It seems telling that he claims to ‘believe’ in the deep, objective isomorphisms yet without moving toward providing proof.

The move from metaphor to (ultimately un-provable) isomorphism reminds me of Blumenberg’s talk of Absolute Metaphor (something I’ve mentioned a few times here already) as ‘unable to satisfy the requirement that truth, by definition, be the result of a methodologically secure proceedure of verification.’ (Paradigms for a Metaphorology)  This is also how Don Ihde reads Heidegger’s account of technology (“Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing” – The Question Concerning Technology):
“I have called what Heidegger sometimes calls ‘Epochs of Being’ civilizational givens. These are something like deeply held, dynamic but enduring traditions, historical but nor more easily thrown over than one’s own deepest character or personality.” [Don Ihde, Technis and Praxis, pg. 104ff.]

2 – Geological Organisation. De Landa’s discussion proposes forms of organization which can on the one hand accommodate non-linear, non-predictable complexity and on the other transfer across different orders (psychic, social, “natural”) without relying on (i) consciousness/ volition or (ii) ‘life’ as organizing principles.

As Alan mentions the model of Hierarchies and Networks seems them as organizational forms which emerge from geological processes. This proposal for a geological mode of organization suggests a 3rd alternative to the 2 classical modes:

(i) Social/ Intentional. From this volition/ will emerges as consciousness in the humanist tradition. The best example of this is forms of communicative rationality as theorized by Habermas and intersubjectivity as an intentional horizon in the phenomenological tradition. This is an anthropomorphic model of organization. It is, arguably, unsatisfactory in that it anthropomorphizes organizational process (as volitional, intentional etc.).

(ii) Biological/ Life. From this organization is attributed to an animating life-force. This is what Habermas recognized in Luhmann’s systems theory (which emerges in his later work and comes from Maturana/ Varela et al)– namely that it is meta-biological in its attribution of forms of auto-poetic organization to an animating (and irrational) life force. This is a biological model of organization. It is, arguably, unsatisfactory in that it makes organizational process “alive.”

Both Norbert Weiner (from a Cybernetic perspective) and, more recently, Ray Brassier (from a eliminative materialist perspective) have warned against such neo-vitalism as a first principle:
Weiner: “It will not do to state categorically that the processes of reproduction in the machine and in the living being have nothing in common.” [Norbert Weiner: God and Golem Inc. pg. 47]

Brassier:  I’m not interested in proposing a philosophy of life or anti-life, but in querying the inflation of “life” into a master-category in contemporary philosophy, not just by overt vitalists, but also by phenomenologists, critical theorists, and enactivists.” [Interview at After Nature blog]


(iii) Geological – whereby complexity is understood through the organization of “unformed and unstructured matter-energy flows.” (pg. 510). The attractiveness of the organization of  matter-energy flows as an isomorphic process is that (unlike Luhmann) it offers a model of non-linear complexity, organization and emergence which is both compatible with material and which doesn’t prioritize either consciousness or forms of life. In other words, this gives us what Bryant calls a ‘flat ontology.’ It allows us to talk about lava flows, storm clouds, oil prices, rioting crowds, ants, ice-floes, viruses and nervous-systems in exactly the same terms.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Latour interview available

Delighted to say that the Latour interview is now available (and getting a bit of attention):


I went into the conversation from the position of thinking of Latour's work in relation to aesthetics and how his ideas may be applicable to art practices. It was, alas, too brief a conversation to unpack a lot of what is mentioned.
I was especially fascinated by the idea of "metaphor as an aesthetics of proof" which resonates with both Hans Blumenberg's claim for absolute metaphors that are "unable to satisfy the requirement that truth, by definition, be the result of a methodologically secure proceedure of verification" (Paradigms for a Metaphorology) and one of Ian Bogost's opening claims in Alien Phenomenology that some elements of metaphysical speculation are unverifiable.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Little Trapdoors

This is a text I was invited to write to accompany the show: a yellow rose by the artists
Owen Boss // Colin Martin // Tom O’Dea
Its on at: Freemasons’ Hall 
17 Molesworth Street Dublin 2
August 9th – August 24th, 2012
(opening 9th August at 6pm)

There are more details here.
The artists have used a short story by Borges as their starting point and I was responding in part to this and in part to the spaces of the Freemasons' Hall as well as their own works.
Little Trapdoors

 I’m generally reticent about the over-use of metaphor in aesthetics; particularly when it comes to talking about art. I’d not go so far as to call it a conspiracy but I do resent its hegemony on meaning. Let a yellow rose be a yellow rose. We have a responsibility to not always take out the spray can and stencil unwelcome associations over it. Objects can get left behind in the search for further correspondences and meanings. Oftentimes things don’t have any meaning beyond their particular place and time. Sometimes they are not a proxy and they don’t delegate for anything but themselves. The metaphorical risk is the temptation to move over the object and miss what’s important. But we shouldn’t only look beyond things but into them too. Beautiful things are not merely metaphors that point to their position in chains of meaning but little trapdoors that can be opened up to reveal hermetic dimensions lying within.

We live by metaphors, however. They are always convenient and ready to hand which is what makes them so hard to avoid. They are part of the very system by which our world is made not only meaningful but liveable. For the philosophers Lakoff and Johnson experience is an intricately constructed architecture of associative meanings. “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another,” they argue in Metaphors We Live By. This means that thought itself is metaphorical. Time is like money, it can be wasted or borrowed; words are like conduits or containers, they carry meaning or can be without sense. Consciousness has orientation, we can feel depressed, sink into a coma or be in low or high spirits.

But whilst thinking seems impossible without such associations the networks of metaphor are also inherently hierarchical constructions of sedimented tradition and authority. They thrum with power.

Metaphors produce meanings but they also lock them up. Metaphors work by taking a characteristic of an object as a stand in for its totality. A rose becomes another thing: a jewel, a “gem of the spring, April’s eye.” An act of ventriloquism takes place and the object is dubbed over with another voice. It starts speaking for something other than itself. What, then, happens if one takes a step beyond the threshold of this system once in a while? What would it mean to absent oneself from metaphor for a moment and rub up against the rough hewn surfaces of reality; to luxuriate in the grain of the masonry of the world?

Objects are not secret entities, more often than not they sit there dumbly and unembarrassed in plain view. But, whilst they are not secret they contain secrets; weird little esoteric elements which are concealed to all but those initiates who know how to look in the right places. When meeting an object we can use all our senses to rove its exterior searching for that flange or lip which anticipates a way inside. It’s the edge of a door. A wrinkle in the buckled surface of a thing can suggest a hinge upon which this door pivots and opens.

The classical philosopher-poet Lucretius also believed that the true nature of things (De rerum natura) lay hidden inside them. For him objects have to be opened up for use to peer into their turbid interiors. So:

And when we knock a stone with a toe, we touch
Just the outer surface of it and the surface colour,
But we do not feel this by our touch, but rather
The hardness of the stone deep down inside.
(Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, Bk. 4, 265ff.)

The poetry of philosophy crafts these thresholds which open up the unyielding and opaque surfaces of the world. It promises esoteric wisdom and occult knowledge of things as they really are. It offers up invitations to private gatherings of objects behaving in their own way as they are wont to do when we’re not paying particular attention to them.

Poetics (in all its multi-sensory forms) is the magickal art of finding and making these little trapdoors.  No one said this better than Wallace Stevens the poet laureate of “things as they are.” He realised that it is not the world that is alien to us, but us that are aliens in the world: 

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.
It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass

Wallace Stevens, Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit

Poetics, then, is about discovering how we as aliens might recognise and grasp the concrete beauty of normal reality by probing beneath its surfaces:

Beauty is momentary in the mind -
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.”

Wallace Stevens, Peter Quince at the Clavier

However, if we are an interloper into what Bruno Latour calls the parliament of things then we shouldn’t be alarmed and treat this as a conspiracy or secret society that we’ve stumbled upon. It is, instead, an opportunity for us to rethink our place in the world. It means we should rise to the challenge in trying to work out the rites and rituals these things perform.

What I’m proposing then, is that there is an aesthetic attitude which is also a poetical-philosophical one. It recognises the significance of Borges’ insight that some things are not, “a mirror of the world, but rather one thing more added to the world.” In other words, it is often unhelpful to think that we are looking at the world as through a glass darkly. Sometimes the metaphor that art (and science for that matter) is a mirror of reality can obscure as much as illuminate. Truth is not limited to sight; it is not something reflected back at us through our own lenses. Instead it is revealed in parts, in different orders, as we move with our whole body through different thresholds into other spaces. The world becomes, then, not a shiny reflection of ourselves, but a tessellated surface composed of an intricate matrix of an infinite number of little trapdoors waiting to be discovered and opened up.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

System as non-human yet non-divine transcendental ground

Great conference in Liverpool and it was a pleasure to contribute to Robert Jackson’s thoughtfully convened panel (see his report here). His own paper and Charlie Gere’s were excellent and a good discussion followed involving Levi Bryant who is using Luhmann in his own way in an Object Orientated Ontology context.

This is the rough version of the conclusion to my paper (with quotations included). The first half was a brief introduction to Luhmann, so I’ve left it out here. My main arguments are that System can be thought of as: (i) a non-human but non-divine transcendental ground of the world (ii) a form of intentionality that is non-human; an Alien or Occult Intentionality which is, ultimately, unknowable.

Occult Systems

The process of secularization of modernity comes about from the move to a functionally differentiated society. The functional differentiation of society in modernity leads to a loss of reference grounded in a transcendental reality. As Luhmann says:

“Self-referential autonomy on the level of individual societal subsystems was first established in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Previously, the religious positioning of the world occupied this functional site. Perhaps one can say that the reference to God intended in all experience and action functioned as the secret self-reference of the societal system. One said, perhaps, that without god’s help no work could succeed. Societal as well as moral demands were fixed thereby. But the religious semantics was not formulated as society’s self-reference; it was (and still is) formulated as other-reference, as transcendence.” (Social Systems, p. 461)

The function of religion in premodern society was to offer a solution to the problem of observing the indeterminate complexity of the world. The world appears as a meaningless chaos of entropy and utter contingency (that is, it could always be otherwise). However, the religious system, with is binary code of immanence/ transcendence, ensures that this chaos is neg-entropic; this is, is observable and can be meaningful. Tropes such as God and The Sacred thus functioned to deal with the paradox of the unobservable and to: “transform indeterminable into determinable contingency” (Function of Religion, p. 189)

The System of Religion, thus, guaranteed the transcendental conditions of the world. God offered a guarantee of the world as a unity of being. It was a divine absolute that underwrote a totality of relations.

But, as Luhmann argues the world is never graspable as a totality because any observation [Beobachtung] of the world is always partial. The world is an undifferentiated totality; an unmarked state that can only be observed within a system through the marking of differentiation and drawing of distinctions.

Even if everything could be observed this would still occlude the observation of the observation; hence the blind-spot in observation. In theological terms this blind spot was occupied by god – who played the role of a positionless observer that could observe the totality of all relations including their own observation. God was both part of the world and able to observe it.

This function, however, disappears in modernity when society becomes functional differentiated into a number of autonomous and operatively closed sub-systems (such as the money system, the media system, the legal system, the science system and so on) none of which has priority over the other. Hence, in modernity, a transcendental condition of the world is lost. This resonates with similar arguments made by both Lyotard in Postmodern Condition regarding the loss of contextualizing meta-narratives in modernity brought about by the dominant narrative of science; and Husserl’s earlier analysis of the Crisis of the European Sciences which describes the historical erosion of the loss of a transcendental grounding for knowledge.

Luhmann’s account of this is more wry and . He says:
“God is dead’, they said – and meant the last observer cannot be identified.”(Reality of Mass Media, p. 119)

Hence: my first claim that in terms of observation Luhmann seems to be suggesting that the system/environment distinction occupies a place once filled by God; that is as an expression of The Absolute in which the totality of relations in the world are observable from a positionless position.

In doing so he also draws a direct parallel between the radical constructivism of his own systems-theoretical approach and certain theological concerns. For example he talks of a “holy trinity” in modernity of God, World, Reality as functional equivalents of Totality, The Absolute or The Real. He states:

The partner for radical constructivism is therefore not traditional epistemology, but traditional theology… One then easily sees that one still has to distinguish the distinguishing of the distinctions with which observers work and which can be observed in the observations of observers from the indistinct which was once called God and today, if one distinguishes system and environment, is called world, or, if one distinguishes object and cognition reality… This also means that the form of a theory described on the basis of its ability to resolve paradoxes allows for the question about functional equivalents, or, if it presents the paradox of observation as the observer, the question about God,”

And so we return to the question of whether...undifferentiated [differenzlose] (and therefore: paradoxical) concepts are necessary. The traditional concept of God acted as an attracter for and thereby absorbed this question. For some, this may suffice. Without committing ourselves, we wish to present three further concepts that could, very faintly, resemble the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. We will speak of World to designate the unity of the difference between system and environment. We will speak of Reality to designate the unity of the difference between knowledge and object. We will speak of Meaning to designate the unity of the difference between actuality
and possibility. All these concepts are indifferent [differenzlos] in the sense that they include their own negation.”
(Luhmann, Erkenntnis als Konstruktion, 41–2. quoted in Rasch, ‚Luhmann’s Ontology’)

So; system appears as a non-human but non-divine ground for the transcendental. But this is a transcendental that eludes total observation perhaps resonating with Zizek’s discussions of a “Less Than Nothing.”

My second conclusion points to a weirder, occult reading of Luhmann. This runs counter to standard receptions of his work in which he is cast as an arch-instrumentalist and his sociology as a post-modern cynical one.

As already mentioned, neo-cybernetics is a source for systems theory. This is seen particularly in his later work (from the 1980s onwards) when he’s influenced in particular by Gregory Bateson’s cybernetic biology and Maturana and Varela’s evolutionary biology. This lead to the adoption of neo-cybernetic vocabularies in describing the functioning of systems; and Habermas’ celebrated criticism of Luhmann’s systems theory was that it: “effects a shift in thought from metaphysics to metabiology” (Juergen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, p 372). For example systems are complex (as opposed to complicated) and non-linear.

In quasi-biological terms, systems are autopoietic (that is self-organising.) For a system to be autopoietic means that its reproduction and perpetuity is sustained by its own internal operations through which it reduces the complexity of its environment.

This means that the operations of a system are not as rational as might have first appeared. They are, for example, not predictable.

One consequence of this is that it is not possible to “steer” society through rational activities; there are limits to human interventions in social systems precisely because systems are autonomous and operatively closed. Hence forms of intersubjectivity grounded in collective rationality become impossible.

Autopoesis (that is self-organization), thus, functions as an animating, first cause in his systems. This is, after all, Habermas’ complaint that Luhmann’s systems theory relies on a principle of irrational “life” as its organizing principle.

Systems, thus, demonstrate a purposiveness but one that is non-rational. It is not available to human reason and is not subject to human steering. In other words it is a form of intentionality that is non-human; an Alien or Occult Intentionality which is, ultimately, unknowable.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Latour and Systems Aesthetics

"FH: Ah agency. Well in just reading you talking about Gaia it seems that if there was any form of agency in relation to your account of what we might call a “democracy of objects” or “thing politics” then that agency would have to come from us understanding ourselves as thoroughly embedded in sorts of networks. Like ants or something perhaps.

BL: "Well, systems and networks have a different sort of feel.
 BL "[The emergence of] System was a great moment in trying to reorganise multiplicity. I mean to order the masses of new stuff [that is, the novelty of modernity] one comes up with the idea that you could actually connect boxes and then link them up in a system. In Sociology we see this with Luhmann [and his Systems Theory]. Networks are very, very different metaphors where, I mean by metaphor an aesthetics of proof. The multiplicity of connections in a network, that is the heterogeneity of a connection, is vastly greater than in system."

Bruno Latour in conversation with Francis Halsall

I'm pleased to say that the whole conversation is to be published soon. 

I'm fascinated by this idea of metaphor as an aesthetics of proof and how this is going to relate to Luhmann's own aesthetics; particularly as it pertains to a discussion of the emergence of, as Latour says, the systems of modernity.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Legacies of Duchamp

Friday 22 June 4pm – 4.45pm

Lecture Room, IMMA at NCH, Earlsfort Terrace

Francis Halsall, course co-ordinator of MA ACW, traces the multiple legacies of Marcel Duchamp in contemporary art practice and theory. Halsall will unpack the main elements at stake in Duchamp’s practice such as: the readymade, appropriation, intervention, anti-art and identity. The impetus for this discussion is Duchamps’s Rotereleifs/ Optic Disks, 1953, as featured in the exhibition Time out of Mind.

Booking is essential.

Free tickets are available online at www.imma.ie/talksandlectures

Thursday, 3 May 2012

21st Century Body symposium, London

Very happy to be involved in this which looks like a very interesting event called

The 21st Century Body Symposium

Daryll Forde Seminar Room, Bloomsbury campus, University College London
18th May, 2012, 9am to 6pm, followed by a drinks reception

Here is my abstract for a paper called Irritating Social Systems: Luhmann and the Body - which has simplified the complexity of Luhmann's position for the sake of legibility. I'll unpack his position in more detail in the paper.

Niklas Luhmann
2nd Order Cybernetics
Transcendental Philosophy
Social Systems

According to Niklas Luhmann the body seems to almost disappear in modernity. He applies the observations of 2nd order cybernetics to a sociological analysis of social systems. Modern society, he argues, is a system comprised of a number of operatively closed and functionally distinct sub-systems such as economics, science, law, the mass-media and so on. Each system is autonomous and observes the world in its own terms via its internal communications.

Thus, Luhmann’s sociology is generally characterised as a post-human one. That is, one in which the basic unit is not the embodied human subject but rather instances of impersonal communication.

In this paper I challenge this. Having introduced Luhmann’s theory, I then discuss two aspects of relevant to thinking about The 21st Century Body.

(i) I explore how ‘to be human in the 21st century’ means to have ones body fully embedded within (and perhaps subordinate to) complex social systems of communication and control. For Luhmann the human is, after all, just another system (a ‘psychic system’) alongside many others. This would appear to render the embodied human subject redundant in two significant ways. On the one hand it is redundant as the focus of sociological analysis (in other words if we want to understand how society works we must look at its systems and not its bodies.) And on the other hand this seems to negate the possibility of a bio-politics grounded in the agency of such an embodied human subject.

(ii) Against this apparently bleak assessment I argue that the body still has a significant function in social systems. My claim is that the body has the ability to migrate between different systems. Take, for example, the simple act of walking into a shop to buy a packet of cigarettes. This requires a complex negotiation of different systems such as: the economic system (in the transaction); the mass media system (in the advertisments for tobacco I may have seen and perhaps use to inform my choice); the legal system (given the legal status of tobacco) and so on. In all of these negotiations my body not a neutral agent of impersonal communication; it is, after all, my body that the cigarettes will probably damage. Rather, my body engages in, observes and is observed by, different systems at different times.

My conclusion, then, is that the body has a transcendent status in social systems that is important. That is, the body can migrate between social systems and irritate them. In doing so the body can disrupt the hygiene of the apparently impersonal operations of social systems with its gleeful, messy corporality

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

More Picasso on the Radio

Another radio appearance on Newstalk

Transformative States and Distinct Images: Discussion on Nancy

Transformative States and Distinct Images
A discussion on the occasion of Emmanuel Rohss’ show at The Joinery
Lead by Francis Halsall and Declan Long in collaboration with MA ACW (NCAD)
 2:00 – 3:30pm, Fri. 13th April 2012

The Joinery, Arbour Hill, Dublin
 All are welcome

This discussion uses Jean-Luc Nancy’s text “The Image – The Distinct” as a starting point for a conversation about the contemporary status of The Image in relation to aesthetics, objects and The Sacred.

The text is available to read in advance. For a copy email: halsallf@ncad.ie
Art is necessary and is not a diversion or entertainment. Art marks the distinctive traits of the absenting of truth, by which it is the truth absolutely. But this is also the sense in which it is itself disquieting, and can be threatening; because it conceals its very being from signification or from definition, but also because it can threaten itself and destroy in itself the images of itself that have been deposited in a signifying code and in an assured beauty. That is why there is a history of art, and so many jolts and upheavals in this history; because art cannot be a religious observance (not of itself or anything else), and because it is always taken back up into the distinction of what remains separate and irreconcilable.”

Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘The Image – The Distinct’

Monday, 26 March 2012

Video Now Online: Debate on Socially Engaged Art

The video of the debate on socially engaged art from a few weeks ago is now online here.

Thinking the Absolute

At this link here Robert Jackson has posted details of the panel he's organised at the forthcoming Thinking the Absolute conference in Liverpool. I'm happy to be involved and will be talking about an occult side to Luhmann (something already sketched on this blog). Full paper to follow when its done.

Friday, 16 March 2012

A Zarathustra in rhinestones: why Wichita Lineman is a great work of art

Following on from my claim in the debate (see last post) that “Wichita Lineman” is a great work of art some folk had asked why I think so. I’m inclined to think that anyone who had heard it would know why, surely?
 Jimmy Webb is a genius, I think, and the Glen Campbell version is the definitive one.

Most obviously it’s a beautiful song which is beautifully arranged and beautifully performed; a micro-opera with an obvious narrative – a beginning, middle and end - which condenses all that it needs to into its 3 minutes (and I'm convinced that there's something about a chiming chord change from G Major to Minor which captures a fundamental truth about the human condition.)

It’s a love song, of course, but one that struggles against the constraints of the pop idiom. This is something that all the very best pop does: to offer the promise of transcendence from within the parameters of a medium that will thwart and undermine those ambitions.

Contained within those three minutes there is an existential allegory: “I need you more than want you; and I want you for all time.” Those lines just floor me every time. Just there you have a perfect expression of the human-all-too-human plea for contact with another human in a world in which we are, essentially, alone. This is more than a desire for love; it is a need, a basic and perhaps destructive compulsion. It’s a thirst for communion that can never be slaked. Yet the Lineman must continue to do so; and his isolation in the sun bleached prairie is relentless. There doesn’t seem to be any respite to his Sisyphean task: “you know I need a small vacation; but it don’t look like rain”. So still the hard and cleansing and cooling rains don’t fall. When we leave the song we leave him “still on the line”; he’s still there now; still searching.

We are all like him; all “searching in the sun” for another “overload”. This is the song of both a solitary everyman and a Zarathustra in rhinestones. He is alone in a solitary quest for meaning in an essentially meaningless and indifferent world that constantly overwhelms (“overloads”) him. His world is one that is relentlessly teetering on the edge of collapse: “And if it snows that stretch down south, won't ever stand the strain” but one that never reaches the redemption that collapse and chaos might bring.

The pay off, though, is that this is a song about communication sung by someone who is utterly alone with no-one to communicate to. The character is a line-man. His job is to maintain the operation of telegraph lines so that people can communicate. The telegraph itself is an odd, mute form of communication that is inherently modern and inherently alienating (or at least must have seemed so to The Lineman): it happens silently and bloodlessly over a distance through the abstract dots and dashes of morse code.

 The art historian and iconographer of The Weird Aby Warburg noticed this effect of distance and finishes his distinctly odd essay on the serpent rituals of the Pueblo Indians with his strange nostalgic requiem:
Telegram and telephone destroy the cosmos. Mythical and symbolic thinking strive to form spiritual bonds between humanity and the surrounding world, shaping distance into space required for devotion and reflection: the distance undone by the instantaneous electric connection.”

The Lineman's fate is ruled by instantaneous electric connection. He must monitor the “overloads” and power outages that arise when there is too much, communication; a surfeit, a glut that threatens the system. But he himself is denied it. He hears the melody of his lover’s voice not via the code but “singing in the wire” and “through the whine” of the wind in the desert of the real. His own song, then, matches that of his lover and the whistling of indifferent nature; the song of the wind that blows through the wires above his head.

These dots and dashes of indifferent communication are then mimicked in the recurring motif in the song (the flute-like sound going “da da dada…”). In the end the world of the Line Man and our own world begin to mesh. We too begin to hear the morse code that he monitors and the whistling of the wind. Through the aeolian harp of the telegraph wire we too can hear the singing that he hears in his exquisite isolation. Ultimately, then, he does communicate; but not with his lover, but with us the listeners, with those outside of his world who listen on and on, only just able to stand the beauty of the strain.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Debate on Socially Engaged Art

This was a bit of fun (although nerve wracking at first).

Yesterday I was involved in a debate on the motion that “This House Feels that the Most Valuable Art is Socially Engaged” in Trinity College. It was organized by Hannah Oellinger, Kamil Markiewicz and Thomas Hayes of NCAD, and hosted by The HistThe other speakers were Declan Long, Kevin Atherton (NCAD), Conor O’Malley (Culture Ireland) and Ursula Ni Choill, William Dunne, Cat Una O’Shea and Liam O Neill (TCD).

I’ve put the text of my 7 minute presentation below. There might be a video of the event floating around too as there were cameras. It was part of the students' involvement with CREATE so there might be a follow on.

Anway, well done to all involved for a stimulating and enjoyable debate.

Opposing the Motion: The House Feels that the Most Valuable Art is Socially Engaged

When it comes to tackling concrete social issues art is of no use at all.

Actually, it is worse than useless.

It’s worse than useless because people still cling on to this hopeless idea that the job of art is politics. It’s not.

If my toilet is blocked, I’ll call a plumber.

If I’m sick, I’ll go to a doctor.

If there’s a crime being committed, I’ll call the police.

But when, when, would I ever look to an artist to solve a problem?


If I want a better society should I make go to artists, singers, songwriters, jugglers, potters clowns and – god forbid – poets for the answers?

No, of course not.

If I want a better society I myself have a responsibility to act in a certain way towards those around me. And if I want society to change I should make specific, concrete demands on those politicians, bureaucrats, legislators and educators who can make these changes.

When it comes to real things that real people can do to make the real world a better place art is not going to help us.

Art is useless; but of course, that is its great strength, and that is what makes it so valuable.

The artist has one responsibility when making art – and I should stress this is when they are making art; it does not resolve them of social responsibility in general – and that is to make things that can be aesthetically judged. All the artistic act need concern itself with is making good art.

We don’t ask chefs to make socially aware souffl├ęs – the contestants of masterchef are not penalized if they don’t make a veloute sauce that is a biting satire of late capitalism.

We don’t expect footballers to say in their post-match interviews that the winning goal they scored in the 72 minute was a protest against the military regime in Burma. 

Food dishes, plays in sport, musical motifs, dance positions, pictures and all other forms of art are beautiful because they are autonomnous – they are separated out from the everyday run of events. Artforms are beautiful precisely because they exist in a context in which responsibility is suspended.

Take a moment to think about what you think are some truly great works of art.

Here are some of mine:

The Van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece
Bach’s Goldberg Variations
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon
Welles’ Citizen Kane
Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman

What you’ll find is that what makes them great is NOT their empirical truth, their didacticism, or their moral properness; in short their responsibility to society.

Instead what makes great works of art great is their greatness, and it’s the same for what makes works of art, good, mediocre or bad. It’s as simple as that.

The most valuable art (and obviously I don’t mean that which is most expensive) is art which is NOT socially engaged. It is, instead, art that challenges its audience to transcend its particular social situation. The best art is not bound by social responsibility but, instead, revels in a glorious irresponsibility.

“Good taste is the enemy of creativity”, Picasso said, and isn’t there something so very tasteful about thinking that you’re doing the right thing?

At its best the call for artistic responsibility is a self-righteous distraction. A harmless enough irrelevance that could be easily brushed off the stage or out of the studio before the real work begins.

More seriously -  the call for social responsibility can used as a lazy get out clause for bad artists more interested in making friends, clearing their conscience or securing funding for social inclusion. “It’s not bad – its non-elitist. It’s inclusive” they’ll say.

We only need look at the flabby, bloated, pompous farce that was Dublin Contemporary to see how several million Euro can be so badly mismanaged in the name of using – and I quote:
art’s underused potential for commenting symbolically on the world’s societal, cultural and economic triumphs and ills.”

What rubbish.

Art is brilliant, we just should be careful what we expect from it.

Art is brilliant and it does come with responsibilities: the responsibly to be freely produced; and our own responsibility to take it seriously.

Of course art can make the world a better place. I can’t and don't want to imagine a world without it.

And so can good food, and music and gymnastics and sex. Especially if you can do them all at once.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Picasso on the Radio

My contribution to a discussion on Picasso on Newstalk is now available to listen to.  This was the first time I've done something like this but I found myself enjoying it in the end.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Today's Class on Harman and Aesthetics

It was a lively and enjoyable session today with the MFA group on Harman, Speculative Realism and aesthetics.

Bits of what I said have appeared on this blog in various forms, and I've also presented this material at SEP/ FEP in York (summer 2011) and at the Portrait of Space project run by Theresa Gillespie and Rose LeJeune in Sept. where you'll also find a video of the talk.

As a few people asked I've put the text up here for a while with a view to continuing the conversation via the blog should anyone want to.

Monday, 6 February 2012

A magical theory of reference?

This is a reply to Alan's response to the last post.

If one takes Realism according Michael Devitt who says: “The general doctrine of realism about the external world is committed not only to the existence of this world but also to its ‘mind independence’: it is not made up of ‘ideas’ or ‘sense data’ and does not depend for its existence and nature on the cognitive activities and capacities of our minds. Scientific realism is committed to the unobservable world enjoying this independence.” [‘Scientific Realism’]

Then the challenge for any such Realism (epistemic, ontological etc.) comes not only in the affirmation of a mind-independent reality but also the claim that that reality is knowable in itself; that is that true statements can be made about elements of reality.

 This seems to necessitate taking one of two, intertwined positions; neither of which is satisfactory to me.

First: Certain forms of Realism necessitate skepticism. This is because if there is a world of which we are part then this world obviously precedes and exceeds us. It transcends us and hence our access to it and knowledge of it must be partial. The transcendental project in both Kant and Phenomenology is a way out of this skepticism and (late) Husserl is quite clear that his phenomenology is realist: "There can be no stronger realism than this, if by this word nothing more is meant than: "'I am certain of being a human being who lives in this world, etc. and I doubt it not in the least'" [Husserl, Crisis of European Sciences... - quoted by Zahavi who makes a strong case for Husserl as a realist.] But it is a different type of realism to Devitt's.

Second: epistemic and ontological realism require reference in order to have meaning. This seems to require some form of abduction to support the knowable existence of a reality that we might have unmediated access to. This is what Putnam meant when he said: “believing that some correspondence intrinsically just is reference (not as a result of our operational and theoretical constraints, or our intentions, but as an ultimate metaphysical fact) amounts to a magical theory of reference.

And Putnam’s position (in Reason Truth and History at least) is to argue that this requires the claim that a ‘god’s eye view’ of the world is possible in principle. He rejects such a position as incoherent because we can never grasp the world in its totality. Descartes recognized this; hence his need for a 3rd entity – God – to triangulate between Res Extensa (corporeal substance) and Res Cogitans (consciousness) Without God his system would have been incoherent.

Now; this is relevant to the last post because this is also what Luhmann also claims; namely that to have a world in-itself then this world needs a correlate observer with a view from nowhere. Luhmann then historicizes this saying that whilst we used to use God to perform this function (of position-less observation) this god-function has been replaced in the functionally differentiated social systems of modernity and the possibility of a position-less observation of the totality of everything has, necessarily, evaporated.

Also, and there’s so much more to be said on this than the following few lines, I think this points to the role of aesthetics in gesturing toward this totality. I take this to be what Bateson means when he draws together epistemology and aesthetics in grasping totality and claims that: "the loss of the sense of aesthetic unity was, quite simply, an epistemological mistake."

It’s also how I read Graham Harman’s claims that aesthetics is first philosophy and that aesthetics is a branch of metaphysics. Perhaps, then, only certain forms of magical thinking can help us speculate about the world beyond our prison house of language and reference.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

"Our loss of the sense of aesthetic unity is an epistemological mistake"

I’ve been thinking about Luhmann and religion at the moment and I have an idea that is probably heretical in terms of rigorous Luhmann scholarship. This is to consider “system” in quasi-religious terms; perhaps as comparable to God.

This is a reading that would require swimming against the stream of interpretation that has Luhmann’s account of Modernity as a sociological one that describes The System of Religion in relation to an increasing secularization of society. That is as a turning away from religion as a means by which to describe the world to forms of social systems that are self-observing and self-describing. Luhmann himself says that the purpose of religion was to deal with the problem of observing the indeterminate complexity of the world and to “transform indeterminable into determinable contingency” (Function of Religion, 1977, pg. 189) and that this function disappears in the functional differentiation of society in Modernity.

However; I’m sure that there is something weird and occult about Luhmann’s “system.” And that his thinking is infused with a form of occult spirituality (albeit a post-human spirituality, perhaps akin to that of Norbert Wiener, who, by the way, was also a pretty weird thinker, as anyone who has read God and Golem Inc. will know.)

There are 3 dimensions to this occult flavour to Luhmann’s work.

One thinks through how Hegelian Geist, or spirit is replaced by “system” in Luhmann’s own account of the development of modern society.

Two concerns how auto-poesis (self-organization) functions as an animating, first cause in his systems (in the later Luhmann at least when he’s drawing on the biological theories of Bateson, Maturana, Varela et al). A spirit, or life-force perhaps inhabits his systems. This is, after all, what Habermas recognized in his critique of Luhmann’s systems theory as meta-biological; that is as relying on a principle of irrational “life” as an organizing principle.

Three follows on from Luhmann’s own enigmatic statements about God such as:
The partner for radical constructivism is therefore not traditional epistemology, but traditional theology… One then easily sees that one still has to distinguish the distinguishing of the distinctions with which observers work and which can be observed in the observations of observers from the indistinct which was once called God and today, if one distinguishes system and environment, is called world, or, if one distinguishes object and cognition reality… This also means that the form of a theory described on the basis of its ability to resolve paradoxes allows for the question about functional equivalents, or, if it presents the paradox of observation as the observer, the question about God,” (from The Society of Society, translated in Moeller, Luhmann Explained.)

Now – I’m not really sure, if I’m honest, if I know what all that means and where I might go with it. But it does seem to mesh with something that Bateson has to say about an aesthetic unity in complex systems (which I’ve quoted below) in relation to spirituality. And this also seems to underwrite my own hunch that at the heart of Luhmann’s own system building is an aesthetic project; and that his is an aesthetic theory.

We have lost the core of Christianity. We have lost Shiva, the dancer of Hinduism whose dance at the trivial level is both creation and destruction but in whole is beauty. We have lost Abraxas, the terrible and beautiful god of both day and night in Gnosticism. We have lost totemism, the sense of parallelism between man’s organization and that of the animals and plants. We have lost even the Dying God.

We are beginning to play with ideas of ecology, and although we immediately trivialize these ideas into commerce or politics, there is at least an impulse still in the human breast to unify and thereby sanctify the total natural world, of which we are.

Observe, however, that there have been, and still are, in the world many different and even contrasting epistemologies which have been alike in stressing an ultimate unity and, although this is less sure, which have also stressed the notion that ultimate unity is aesthetic. The uniformity of these views gives hope that perhaps the great authority of quantitative science may be insufficient to deny an ultimate unifying beauty.
I hold to the presupposition that our loss of the sense of aesthetic unity was, quite simply, an epistemological mistake. I believe that that mistake may be more serious that all the minor insanities that characterize those older epistemologies which agreed upon the fundamental unity.” (Bateson – Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity, Intro.)

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Almost not there and almost not art

This is due to appear in Critical Bastards: http://criticalbastards.wordpress.com/ but as I’ve not posted anything for a bit I thought I’d put this up here until I have time to write some more. It’s a review of Rivane Neuenschwander: A Day Like Any Other, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, (Nov. 2011 – Feb. 2012)

There are mysterious mucky circles on the lower floor of the New Galleries in IMMA that are easy to walk over and easy to miss. They’re almost not there and they’re almost not art. They lie there patiently and silently recording the visitors to the space in the dirt that sticks to their tacky surfaces. It’s a simple enough idea, to put glue circles on the floor. But in that slight gesture beneath your feet you can see both an aesthetics and a philosophy begin to take shape.

Rivane Neueuschwander’s work gives form to relations; be they between people, objects or spaces. What these forms do, quite beautifully, is allow us to see that space is not a neutral vacant nothing but rather a site of potentiality that emerges from systems of subjects and objects. Space is not a void but rather something that is constantly renewed through complex interrelations between things and people. Space is something to be achieved.

Involuntary Sculptures (Speech Acts) is a collection of motley objects made by people during conversations in bars and restaurants. It’s an odd array of micro-sculptures made from torn beer mats, toothpicks, napkins, bottletops and so on; twisted by a haphazard origami. Their precariousness betrays the absent minded process of their construction and they run the risk of toppling into inconsequentiality. Yet these ersatz records of now unknowable encounters are the residue that’s left behind after the gentle collisions of things and people.

A whole room is given over to the ribbons of I Wish Your Wish which hang in scruffy lines on the walls. We’re invited to take one and wear it around our wrist; this is a reference to the tradition at the church of Nosso Senhor do Bonhim in Salvador, Bahia (in Neueuschwander’s native Brazil) where it’s said that the wish will come true when the ribbon falls off. Each ribbon has a wish printed on it taken from what other visitors have written. Every desire (to speak better English, to have more money, to recover from a fatal disease) gives only the slightest glimpse into whole other spaces where complex networks of intentions, and expectations fizzle and pop.

What all these works do, then, is open up the gallery as another space of possibility where relations may be given some form. This happens quite literally in the drawings of First Love (2005) that were created when a police sketch artist tried to capture the image of visitors’ descriptions of their first love. Here the gallery becomes a space where intimate liaisons are made public.

Yet to claim that these gestures and things are a form of philosophy could suggest that this is a serious, dry and perhaps precious exhibition. Far from it. Its beauty lies in the lightness by which these relations are handled and spaces nurtured. And as I watched the bubble in the film The Tenant (2010) bob around the environment of a vacant house like a furtive intruder I couldn’t control my body as splutters and laughs irrupted from it. It was only then that I noticed the woman who’d walked in behind me and just then caught my eye with a look that I couldn’t quite place. This was a look of recognition; but an uncertain one. Was it one that was disapproving or flirtatious? What nascent relationship was taking form here? I didn’t know. And, ashamed at my awkwardness and ignorance, left the space behind.