September 23, 2012 § Leave a Comment
That the opportunistic parasite Toxoplasma-gondii, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Bastet, and the ideas that inform Bruno Latour’s Actor-network theory (ANT) all exist independently are not contested subjects. That they are unified has yet to be examined. The goal of this paper will be to situate these three seemingly disparate phenomena into an interactive web of possibilities that will prove useful for the disciplines of science, social science, mythology, philosophy, and other fields of study. Our first step will be to examine Kevin T. Lafferty’s research on the eco-science of toxoplasmosis in human agents and its cultural outcomes. Lafferty’s work will lay the ground for a complimentary analysis of an ancient Egyptian dynamic that encouraged the (then unknown) proliferation of the parasite into the people’s daily and spiritual life of upper and lower Egypt within the religio/mythic power symbolized in the guise of the female cat deity Bastet. We will then conclude by demonstrating how the microbial and mythic agents (yes, toxoplasma-gondii is considered a non-human agent with agency, along with cats, humans, and Bastet etc.) will be placed into a non-hierarchical perspective of ANT by way of Bruno Latour’s work concerning science, people, microbes, technology (mummification) which is an un-stratified way of understanding the relationships between all the actors/actants involved.
In a 2006 paper Lafferty proposes the idea that the parasite Toxoplasma-gondii has influenced human culture. Lafferty quotes J.P. Webster explaining that the parasite promotes the risk behavior of affected rodents “T. gondii appears to manipulate rodent behavior in sophisticated ways that would increase transmission to domestic cats” (2749). The infected rodents are said to engage in high risk activities so as to get caught and eaten by the cat, thus positioning the parasite in the body of its desired carrier. Felines are the ideal host for the parasite, but humans can become infected due to their proximity to cats as house pets, companions, and domestic pest control. “The reproductive phase of this protozoan lives in the cells that line the intestine of a feline. [And can] infect [other] cats or encyst in the brain and other tissues of a wide range of warm-blooded vertebrates, including humans” (J.K.A. Beverly qtd. in Lafferty 2749). Once the parasite has infected a person, traceable personality traits are said to take place with noted variance between the genders, “For instance, in infected women, intelligence, superego strength […] and affectothymia […] are higher, while infected men have lower intelligence, superego strength and novelty-seeking […]; both infected men and women have higher levels of guilt-proneness […]” (Flegr [sic] and Hrdy [sic], qtd. in Lafferty 2749). Because T. gondii affects men and women in these gender specific ways, using the cultural research of Hofstede & McCrae, Lafferty ‘predicts’ the outcome of “…higher aggregate neuroticism. Aspects of human culture associated with neuroticism are male control, materialism, rules and structure [and] that T. gondii could increase the cultural dimensions of ‘masculine’ sex roles and uncertainty avoidance” (2551).
All of Lafferty’s observations are pointing in a general direction: microbial agency. Before we incorporate that into Actor-network theory, let us refer to a number of studies that demonstrate the unlikely connection between T. gondii and the worship/mummification of cats in ancient Egypt. On the topics of Toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia, the Stanley Medical Research Institute writes in their online article “All about Cats and T. gondii Transmission” about the “…major example of cats being regarded as pets […] in ancient Egypt […] a local cult worshipping a cat goddess (Bastet) became widespread. Cats were highly valued and often mummified when they died” (¶5). This obvious link to ancient Egyptian cat deification and to the goddess Bastet is not unique. Mark Greener also postulates a similar argument with his independent research on T. gondii and its ancient roots (again including its link to schizophrenia), where he writes “Bastet might have evolved from the Middle Eastern Neolithic cat cult into a protective goddess, reflecting the cat’s critical role protecting from rodents the grain vital to the society’s survival” (¶13). It is common knowledge that Egyptian priests preformed the necessary mummification of cats to accompany and assist the pet’s owner in the afterlife. What is not widely known is that the deceased cats were mummified with the same meticulous care and attention to detail as their human counterparts (Owen 2004). It was due to this proximity to the animal’s entrails—hence its waste products—that the priests would have easily contracted toxoplasmosis. There was not any awareness of microbial infection, and because of this there was not a concern for sanitary conditions by which to handle the human and animal corpses. Ancient Egyptian priests enjoyed a place of societal prestige (Porphyry ¶8). This social position enabled the infected priests to promulgate the belief that cats were to be revered, this lead to the outright worship of the feline goddess Bastet. This confirms Lafferty’s findings, whereby T. gondii infiltrates itself in a materialistic, male-dominated cultural pattern. This also affirms Lafferty’s connection with the more stable and affable traits that are manifested in females when they become infected. Bastet was primarily known for her protective qualities. The importance of Bastet in ancient Egypt cannot be underestimated (BBC). It is only till now, in the 21stcentury, that we can finally bridge the gap and silence some of the mysteries behind the extreme reverence of cats to the time of the Egyptian pharaohs with this key symbiotic microbial/human relationship.
With all of this under consideration, let us finally position these findings within Actor-network theory (ANT). ANT was popularized by the French sociologist, philosopher Bruno Latour with Michel Callon in the 1980s (Crawford 1). As Crawford defines ANT, we are reminded of a critical feature
…the agency of nonhumans (machines, animals, texts, and hybrids, among others), [and] the ANT network is conceived as a heterogeneous amalgamation of textual, conceptual, social, and technical actors. The ‘volitional actor’ for ANT, termed actant, is any agent, collective or individual, that can associate or disassociate with other agents (1).
This point is central to our argument because it positions the nonhuman T. gondii as an actor/actant on the same interactive level as the human and societal actors/actants. Latour in his book The Pasteurization of Francewrites at length on microbes as agents, for instance he writes “We have to add the action of microbes” (35), and he later underscores this with “…the action of the microbe redefined not only society but also the nature of the whole caboodle” (38). Since Latour also positions ANT within a semiotic structure he privileges relationships within the network “There is no external referent. Referents are always internal to the forces that use them as touchstones” (166). The network of actors and actants becomes an entity we’re not used to recognizing, because we typically think that the only actor worthy of our attention is human. What this could mean in terms of ANT and T. gondii is implicated in the way T. gondii is usually thought to have conscious agency. When we refer to the way T. gondii seems to be ‘controlling’ its host we are situating it within a network whereby the human, cat, or mouse become victim to the parasite’s ‘will’. In a strict scientific understanding, T. gondii is merely affecting the physiology and neurology of the infected host. But once we recognize that agency need not be only about the volitional, we can then allow for the simple and complex ways micobes, humans and culture reverberate with unstratified connectivity. Crawford helps to define ANT by showing that it’s non-essentialist (1). To this concept Latour writes “…we should not decide a-priori what the state of forces will be beforehand, or what will count as a force” (155). The same can also be said for the weaknesses (155). What this means is that we cannot (with ANT) suggest that one actor’s role is essentially stronger or weaker that the other—ANT insists on a level playing field with no winners and losers. One actor is not more important than another. “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (Latour 158).
Suddenly our prayers are answered. Reality becomes fiction and vice-versa. Our fetid microbial actor T.gondii becomes an ancient deity, mice are less risk averse, cats are coddled, men become domineering, and women’s superego is pronounced. But, now the most pressing question to ask is: in this non/fictional network who plays who?
BBC. “Temple to Cat God Found in Egypt.” BBC. (2010). Web. Retrieved on 18 September 2012.
Crawford, Cassandra S. “Actor-network Theory.” Ritzer-Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Web. Retrieved on 19 September 2012.
Greener, Mark. “Of Rats and Cats and Suicide, Toxoplasmosis Gondii.” Fortean Times. (2007). Web. Retrieved on 15 September 2012.
Lafferty, Kevin D. “Can the Common Brain Parasite, Toxoplasma Gondii, Influence Human Culture?” Proceedings B of the Royal Society. (2006). PDF. Web. Retrieved on 15 September 2012.
Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Trans. Alan Sheridan and John Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press. (1988). Print.
Owen, James. “Egyptian Animals Were Mummified Same Way as Humans.” National Geographic. (2004) Web. Retrieved on 18 September 2012.
Porphyry. “On abstinence from animal food (1823) Book 4.” Trans. Thomas Taylor. Early Church Fathers – Additional Texts. (n.d.). Web. Retrieved on 18 September 2012.
Stanley Medical Research Institute. “All about Cats and T. gondii Transmission.” The Stanley Medical Research Institute. (2008). Web. Retrieved on 15 September 2012.
 Toxoplasma-gondii infection.
 Ancient Egyptian feline goddess.
 “warm, outgoing, attentive to others, kindly, easy-going, participating and likes people” (Lafferty, 2749).
 group, societal, and/or cultural neurosis.
September 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
How much credence do we give a brief article on wisdom presented in the popular scientific press? The answer will depend on the variety of uses we might have for such an article. For instance, are we reading it because we are actually interested in the neurobiology of the brain? Are we reading it to gain wisdom? Although the emphasis of Meeks and Jeste’s (2009a) work focused on the neurobiology of wisdom, it is worthwhile to reflect on their conclusions, as well as the limited way Lite (2009) presents it in her article in Scientific American.
Before I look at Meeks and Jeste’s (2009a) paper, I’d like to lay down a couple of initial arguments. First with Lite’s (2009) article there are obvious omissions which are probably due to her editorial constraints, but in addition to this, Lite titles her article: “Is Wisdom in the Brain?” (2009). On the surface, this title is just a little redundant, since where else would we find wisdom, other than in our brain? Of course, this particular question can be asked and can lead us to any number of philosophical problems, for instance, is knowledge and/or wisdom innate? But, this isn’t where we want to go, because the particular study of neurobiology under consideration has to do with locating the exact function and chemistry of the brain when it is engaged in thinking wisely—the study is not trying to determine if wisdom can be located in the brain. A better title could be: Can Science Locate how Wisdom Works Within the Brain? The other contention I have with Lite’s article vs. Meeks and Jeste’s, is that she fails to account for the possible applications/conclusions that can be made using the study as a foundation for further developments in neurobiology and beyond. In other words, Lite basically presents that facts and we as readers don’t know what to do with the information, other than to conclude that a neurobiological study has recently looked into brain chemistry, circuitry and connections to determine where and how wisdom takes place in a laboratory context.
Meeks and Jeste (2009a) elaborated on research literature that was compiled from multiple sources that used the cutting edge technology of neuroimaging (fMRI) to study the brain. To define what this technology actually is, Hannah Devlin (2012) tells us that a fMRI “…works by detecting the changes in blood oxygenation and flow that occur in response to neural activity – when a brain area is more active it consumes more oxygen, and to meet this increased demand blood flow increases to the active area” (¶ 1). What this suggests is that neurobiology (the biology of the nervous system) shouldn’t be entirely confused with neuroscience (the study of the nervous system). Science Daily defines neurobiology as: “the study of cells of the nervous system and the organization of these cells into functional circuits that process information and mediate behavior” (2008, ¶ 1). Essentially, Meeks and Jeste were elaborating on multiple studies and research that used fMRI results showing what areas of the brain are connecting and what chemical exchanges and functions took place when wisdom was employed by groups of subjects in a laboratory setting.
What is most remarkable about the study is the basic fact that Meeks and Jeste (2009a) compiled an actual list (see below) that is comprised of the subcomponents of wisdom (p. 356). Their compiled six subcomponents are: “Prosocial attitudes and behaviors, Social decision making/pragmatic knowledge of life, emotional homeostasis [emotional regulation], reflection/self-understanding, value relativism/tolerance [overall tolerance of other’s beliefs], acknowledgement of and dealing effectively with uncertainty and ambiguity [and so on…]” (Meeks & Jeste, 2009a, p. 356). As I mentioned earlier, this list is the best part of the research because is provides an objective list of the important features of wisdom. Their objective list of the characteristic traits of wisdom is then employed, one at a time, to locate what exactly happens in the brain when each subcomponent is tested on while undergoing a fMRI. For instance, the doctors/scientists examined what precisely happened biologically in the brain when a patient is acting altruistically?—and so on.
the subcomponents of wisdom (2009a)
How does the extensive scientific paper compare to what Lite (2009) writes about? Although she does a good job presenting the main ideas of the study, she also leaves parts of the information out. One oddity in her article is that she hyperlinks the reader to Meeks and Jeste’s (2009a) paper, yet she refers to another talk given by the doctors elsewhere. I did a Google search and found a PowerPoint that Meeks and Jeste (2009b) put together that refers to most of what Lite writes about. Another point, and the most important part Lite leaves out, has to do with the doctor’s comments on potential uses of their research. These points are important because this demonstrates how the doctors envision the applications of the research into the future and the likely connections to other areas of expertise—gerontology, philosophy, developmental research etc. (Meeks & Jeste, 2009a, p. 361). Their list for the possible applications has a few that are worth quoting: “objectively measuring wisdom, examining the relationship of wisdom to socio-demographic variables […] using animal models […] and developing interventions to enhance wisdom” (Meeks & Jeste, 2009a, p. 363). There are four others, but the four cited here stand out as excellent ways to think about where Meeks and Jeste see the research going. Lite makes no mention of these and I argue that if she did, her article would have more direction into the actionable features of how to implement this unique wisdom research.
Assuming that Lite’s (2009) article had to be short due to Scientific American’s editorial constraints, we’ll give her the credit she deserves. However, we practically know that things will get lost in the paring down of key information. With this said, let us not forget that we are dealing with understanding the neurobiology of wisdom, so actual wisdom cannot be left out of the ways the subject is addressed. This kind of problem is common when comparing philosophy to science. Philosophy and science are often conflated and typically this is at the disservice of the philosophy, since so few care to do the philosophical work behind it. This leads me to then question an obvious problem with Meeks and Jeste’s (2009a) analysis. This problem is honestly addressed by the doctors when they confess: “Many studies included performance-based laboratory tasks, whose validity for assessing specific domains of wisdom may be open to question (e.g., how well an in vitro game assesses altruism in real life)” (Meeks & Jeste, 2009, p. 361). Their parenthetical statement is a form of an actual question I pose. How can anyone measure real-life altruism while examining a test subject while she’s attached to the wires, devices and machinery of a fMRI. I have to imagine that a patient would be stuck to all this equipment while she prescribed tests and games. Can this realistically be an effective way to know and understand the workings of altruism as it happens in the brain? Although there are questions about altruism where we can readily answer with assurance in the lab—do you give money to a charity? While other forms of extreme altruism are more drastically circumstantial—can you risk your life to save another? I’d have to say that the latter is way too difficult, if not impossible, to answer with any assurance, since we don’t know what we’ll do to save a life until we have the unfortunate situation at hand.
It should not be concluded that I would discourage any effort to continue this neurobiological work of Meeks and Jeste (2009a) along with others doing the same kinds of research. With this said, the take away lesson would be not only the where and how wisdom takes place in the brain, but to also understand how we can engage the act of encouraging actual wisdom in all circumstances—especially when we do science.
Devlin, H. (2012). What is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)? Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2007/what-is-functional-magnetic-resonance-imaging-fmri/
Lite, Jordan. (2009). “Is wisdom in the brain?” Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=is-wisdom-in-the-brain-2009-04-06
Meeks, Thomas W., MD & Jeste, Dilip V., MD. (2009a). Neurobiology of wisdom. Archives of General Psychiatry. Retrieved from http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=483035
Meeks, Thomas W., MD & Jeste, Dilip V., MD. (2009b). Neurobiology of wisdom. Retrieved from http://libraries.ucsd.edu/locations/bml/_files/jeste.pdf
“Neuroscience.” (2008). Science Daily. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/n/neurobiology.htm
August 17, 2012 § 4 Comments
…a few months ago, I was working on a blog post & painting the MMA fighter Diego Sanchez. At that time, my friend Michael Verfallen & I were talking about doing a joint post on the subject of fighting, getting into the ring, the violence &c. The ideas sat on the back-burner till now & have transformed into an interview. I don’t have many opportunities in my day-to-day routine to interview anyone who is seriously into mixed-martial arts, but I’ve always been interested, & Michael is that rare fighter who also studies anthropology & philosophy. While I was thinking about the interview, I was also reading Bergsonism by Gilles Deleuze. This had me ruminating on the Deleuze/Bergsononian concept of the virtual. As is the case, Verfallen is a virtual friend, I’ve never met him in person & I haven’t even seen a picture of him. What I do have is our virtual friendship consisting of e-mails & tweets. In our busy world we usually don’t give much thought to the meaning of this word virtual, & in our contemporary usage we might mistake it as something that is not real, or something that is possible. Both these meanings get away from Deleuze/Bergson’s virtual. What is fascinating about the way we are to think of their virtual has more to do with it as a real & generative idea, rather than that which is just possible. In this case the virtual becomes creative, instead of narrowly definitive. What this could mean in an online context is important to think of with respect to understanding a virtual friendship as a relationship to be realistically actualized as it is here. This virtual interview is an actuality & not a mere possibility. This virtuality offers an alternative to a typical way of trying to vigorously narrow down meaning (online or off). This is where the virtual becomes a point of multiplicity & difference. This is where meaning is becoming & thought is generative…
…also, I’m psyched to feature two images from Adam Smith’s MMA series Fight Journal. Interestingly enough, Smith regards the images as anthropological records. With this said, a single photograph is an excellent non-verbal way to document human relationships & behavior. As much as the phenomena of cage fighting is hyped & commercialized today, it’s easy to recognize that fighting is a primordial sport to participate in, as well as to watch. Its origins are pre-human. Please note that the two images included here are not of Michael Verfallen, but they have been used with Smith’s generous permission.
Aurelio Madrid: I want to start with a little background…like about your fighting career & how that was connecting to your anthropology background.
Michael Verfallen: First, thank you for the opportunity for this dialogue. It is not everyday I get to talk up two of my favorite activities in one conversation. On the surface it seems almost contradictory to discuss sport combat and philosophy in such tight relation. But, here we are.
To be honest, my participation in martial arts and my interest in intellectual activities evolved quite independently until late in my academic career. Martial-arts and fighting are pursuits I took up early in my teens for a variety of practical and emotional reasons, with philosophy becoming a central passion just a few years later. Although in retrospect each interest likely originates from a related set of motivations – motivations which have had a significant role in my life: pushing internal thresholds and resisting external powers.
To put all this in context, I spent many of my most formative years in a series of government housing projects – places and situations where children where routinely forced into precarious situations and confrontations with their peers and adults, fighting in defense, for respect or often out of frustration. Being able to ‘throw hands‘ and inflict instant and decisive violence had the dual benefit of protection while also generating the kind of symbolic capital – in this case fear – most poor people could not otherwise accumulate. Intimidation was as good a currency to gain respect in such contexts.
So martial-arts was (and is) very empowering in that it allowed me to resist the threat and actuality of violence and domination from without, but it also helped me discipline my body and allowed me to expand and develop my capacities from within, so to speak. Martial-arts and boxing challenged me to do things with my body I never thought possible and pushed me mentally and emotionally to the point where I learned so much about my strengths and weakness as a living being. I believe strongly that martial-arts generally touches on all aspects of human potential and provides a concrete set of practices with which to evolve those capacities. So when done properly (e.g., with the right teachers, in the right setting) martial-arts is one of the most effective personal development practices humans have yet invented.
Interestingly enough, as I was maturing physically and developing technical proficiency in the art of combat, I was also becoming very introspective. I had always been introverted as a child, but around the same time as i was gaining competency in fighting I also became intensely self-reflective (although still narcissistic, as teens can be). There was a whole chunk of my personality that became compelled by much more abstract interests. Examining my life and pursuing the so-called ‘big questions’ rapidly became as important to me as martial-arts. But both interests continued to push boundaries and help build my immunity to potentially dominating outside forces.
My first foray into theory and academic ideology began with Nietzsche. Nietzsche had everything I wanted at that young age: the will to power, the championing of the free Dionysian energies, transvaluation of all values – basically Nietzsche offered intellectual legitimacy for a youthful rejection of conventional morality and institutional culture. You can imagine what kind of havoc such thinking provoked in my teenage life for a while. But what I came away with was a strong desire for fearless inquiry which drove me to go find out more about what was going on in the world, outside of what others purported to know.
Reading Nietzsche quickly led to an interest in the ancient Greeks, Schopenhauer and Freud, which in turn led to Jung and then Joseph Campbell. Initially it was Jung and Joseph Campbell who sparked my interest in Anthropology, through their studies of myth and symbolism, and the relationship between culture and the human psyche. These interests eventually drove me to the university with intentions of becoming a depth psychologist, but plans changed and I ended up getting my degrees in Anthropology, with an applied focus on cross-cultural psychology, the sociology of health and political ecology. Meanwhile, I never stopped studying philosophy – particularly Indian and Buddhist philosophies, along with Spinoza, Hume, William James, Santayana, Heidegger, Sartre and more Nietzsche.
Even then my intellectual pursuits evolved quite independently of my training in martial-arts. It wasn’t until getting deep into the critical theorists of the body that I began to connect these interests. With Marx, Bourdieu and Foucault in particular I came to realize how cultural forces and ‘discipline’ create body-subjects, and how our bodies are implicated in all kinds of material and social processes. What became very clear was that my own biographical details suggested how my own dispositions and beliefs were generated in conditions structured by historical and societal forces. Foucault’s later work on the cultivation of the selfwas particularly influential, in that I began to view combat training as a technology for self-cultivation. I realized that through training and study I could intentionally shape my own mode of existence in ways that make me more capable of resisting subjectivizing procedures and dominating ambient interests.
Merleau-Ponty then changed everything for me. With Merleau-Ponty I was finally able to understand what was good in Husserl and Heidegger, but more importantly, I began to see a philosophical way out of mind/body dualisms – dualisms which fighting showed me were completely groundless. So with Merleau-Ponty I began investigating human perception as nexus of possible knowledge, as well as a way towards a dynamic, non-reductive materialism. M-P clearly demonstrated how situated experiences of the sensible as the ‘flesh of the world’, it’s “reversibility”, can provide access to an immanent and consequential reality. Merleau-Ponty is central for me.
Finally, bringing together my readings of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Marx allowed me to integrate my anthropological studies and develop a stable enough frameworks with which to begin understanding the relationship between embedded and embodied action and speculative imagination. From that point forward martial-arts and theory became two related sets of tools with which I was to generally explore being a hominid in contemporary contexts. Whether it was reading the books of some dead philosopher or stepping into a cage to fight another athlete, it is always about exploring and pushing the limits of my own experiences, capacities and powers in relation to those wild forces and systems which surround and sustain me.
Aurelio Madrid: With that, do you have anything to say about the differences between the intellectual pursuits vs. the physical demands of the sport?
Michael Verfallen: I think there are definite similarities between the two activities. Both require accumulating sets of skills and proficiencies, and both require an enormous amount of time and attention. To pursue anthropology, philosophy or martial-arts you have to make a choice to not pursue other activities. Such choices often limit a person’s ability to form casual relationships and/or to engage in what many consider to be ‘normal‘ social activities outside of the academy or dojo. With combat sports you have to dedicate yourself almost obsessively, or you run the risk of performing badly and getting seriously hurt. So a lot of extra-curricular pursuits get cut-out of the schedule.
Yet with both fighting and intellectual study the dedication and learning provide profound rewards both existentially and in terms of one’s ability to adapt and find their way in the world. For example, I view individual humans as loosely integrated assemblages of energy-matter with differential capacities. The physical and the intellectual are two aspects of the non-dual plasticity of humans, and exercising those broadly human capacities enables us to be more adaptive creatures. We simply end up enacting different sets of capacities based on personal history, genetics, education, class, gender, etc, etc. This is what the notion of epigenetics is all about. So martial-arts and academic study both expand an individual’s physical and imaginative capacities, respectively.
Aurelio Madrid: Can you try to explain the dynamic between you & your opponent? Was it ever a challenge to beat the crap out of someone?…or is that just a sadistic side of yourself that you liked to indulge?
Michael Verfallen: Truthfully, I have never fully understood the all of the dynamics of being a fighter. I began fighting out of instinct and necessity, and only later as a path of personal development and exploration.
The most important philosophical insight I had from combat sports came to me directly after my first loss in the cage. I competed against a much more experienced and dedicated fighter and was beaten pretty soundly despite going the full three rounds. A few days afterwards, I was reading some article on radical skepticism and Kant, and it struck me as so completely and brutally absurd that anyone could ever claim that humans do not have the capacity for direct experiential access to objects as such. Basically, here I was unintentionally beaten, bruised and emotionally affected and some PhD-guy sitting in some library was dreaming and writing about how humans do not directly experience other things in the world. Well, my experience and the state of my body demonstrated quite the opposite. What fighting has proved to me – beyond any sort of linguistic demonstration of logical construction – is that entities external to my perception and control have direct access to my substantial being. The plane of action is immanent. Not only did I experience my opponent’s powers cognitively but a felt them structurally, in the way he was able to intervene on my existence and disable (temporarily) certain aspects of my characteristic functionality. Never had I felt so affected. So I know that objects and entities can and do have direct and highly consequential contacts with each other. Realism is THE default position for anyone who experiences the world as a whole/embodied being. After five minutes in a locked cage with a trained opponent, I believe anyone would become a realist. Ontologically speaking, we are open and vulnerable systems.
When I was younger I definitely got a rush out of dominating my opponents. My will to overpower was strong. I had no economic means to differentiate myself and gain enough social capital to climb the hierarchies of prestige and respect, so it was exhilarating forcing that respect and admiration from within my competitive peer group.
However, my taste for domination quickly dissipated after the birth of my first child. After this, I transformed from a ruthless competitor to a hyper-sensitive, protective and attentive father, almost overnight. I always had a high degree of empathy, never wanting to significantly hurt other people, even opponents, but becoming a father amplified that exponentially. I couldn’t even watch horror movies on T.V without feeling outraged and disgusted. Needless to say I no longer had the taste for violence and physical domination. So family life combined with a few nagging injuries led me to drop out of competitive fighting for about eight years. It was only about four years ago I returned to training at a high level of intensity, and only in the last two years have I been competing again. I missed having competition fitness as well as the sheer viscerality of fighting. Training and competition will never again be about domination or violence for their own sake, but about challenging myself to be the most well-rounded creature I can.
Aurelio Madrid: with the intellectual vs. the physical question, was this ever an issue w/ the other fighters? are most fighters the meat-heads we imagine?
Michael Verfallen: Ha, I certainly don’t get into conversations about Deleuze or Hegel at the dojo (school) or gym. Everything during training is geared towards shutting down abstract thinking in order to focus on habituating skills and pushing the limits of the body. The goal in fight training is not to think, but to act, and to do so decisively and without hesitation. And I train with professional fighters: men and women who dedicate all of their time and energy to developing a certain skill-set. People who want to discipline their body and minds to become machine of destruction. So, the tendency with people so invested in the pursuit of excellence in this field is to eliminate everything else that might distract or detract from training. No, you don’t get a lot of grad students or poets or artists in there discoursing in between kicking each other in the face, wrestling each other to the ground or choking each other out.
That said, there are very smart people involved in the martial-arts. Consider the fact that a person has to train and study jujitsu four-to-six hours a week for at least eight years before getting their black belt. That could be the equivalent time and effort to earn, at least, a graduate degree, maybe even a PhD. And mixed-martial-artists train and study in multiple disciplines for about ten years to reach the level competency you might see in the UFC. So, I think we need to be sensitive to the different kinds of intelligences involved before we start comparing.
One thing is for certain though: you will not find a lot of ego-maniacs or sociopaths in an established dojo. Martial-arts has a way of weeding out the people with little character or ego problems, simply because those types of people cannot cope with being humbled on a daily basis, and often this beating is done by people who are physically smaller than they are. It is simply not possible to be super arrogant or a ‘bully’ in a place where you regularly get choked-out or beat-up by your peers. In most of the serious dojos you are likely to find some of the most humble and self-secure people imaginable. In fact, from my experience in both environments, I would venture to guess that any given university would have a much higher ratio of arrogant and intolerable people than in your local dojo.
Aurelio Madrid: …about the physical toll this kinda sport takes on your body, was that ever a problem? …cauliflower-ear, broken nose, overtraining?
Michael Verfallen: Yeah, it’s always a problem to a certain degree. I can’t remember the last time I was completely pain free. I have broken my hands, most of my toes on both feet, broken and separated multiple ribs, I have had tendon and ligament damage, sprained my back and ankles, had dozens of black eyes, bruises, several lacerations and one major concussion. Just over a month ago I required crutches to walk due to damage sustained to both of my thighs during a fight (leg kicks), and right now I have ligament damage in my right foot that does not seem to be healing. No cauliflower ear though! It is hard for me to determine what toll all of this will have on me long-term however. I hope it won’t be too bad growing older…
July 31, 2012 § 4 Comments
…in memory of franz west (click image for nyt-obit)
Now that digital technology has sufficiently infiltrated our lives, it’s easy to find countless ways to distract ourselves from ourselves. Look up from what you’re doing, if there are people around there will be someone engrossed with a mobile device, or another such screen. By extension, a good percentage of our online meandering fills hours of random thoughts, pointless searches and perpetual dissatisfaction. Each way to find another distraction to satiate our hunger moves us away from a nothingness we can’t place. But, is technology to blame? Haven’t we always been afraid to face our lives apart from the day to day situation of having to do this or that? Without these things we have our existence laid bare. When we’re not in the pixilated haze of our everyday circumstance—we have what we affectionately think of as boredom. Philosophically speaking, boredom shows itself as a transitional stage from distracted living to authentically being alive.
What is boredom anyway? How can we know it when it’s perpetually avoided? To be bored, boring, or to be a bore is a modern day evil. One must never be any of these things. In our everyday logic, boring is worthless. Everything must be entertaining, newsworthy, exiting, sexy etc. There is big money in fighting boredom. In our everyday war with boredom, we rarely, if ever, stop to ask of its value, not as something to rid ourselves of, but as a way to know ourselves better. Boredom, in the absence of constant entertainment, is a way to ruminate on time’s certain passage. It’s a way to think about a tiresome ennui that effectively drags though time. Time becomes dulled down, and if we’re attuned to this grey mood we can consider our finitude as a defining characteristic for us as living human beings. The tedium of boredom offers us our own possibility.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was known for many things, most notably he’s known for his term Dasein (being there). Less well known is his extensive treatment of the concept of boredom. In a recent book on the study of boredom, Experience without Qualities, Elizabeth S. Goodstein devotes a chapter to Heidegger’s unique way of thinking about boredom and its profound effects on modern man. She shows us how the “fundamental mood” (282) of boredom has transformed into Heidegger’s mature view of the concept. This is exemplified in his 1929 lecture: What is Metaphysics? and in other sources.
Aside from his multiple complexities, Goodstein does position Heidegger’s arguments as important with respect to how we can become ‘attuned’ (primordial understanding) with the ‘mood’ of boredom to situate our lives within a context of Heidegger’s urging to get us to start doing the essential work of philosophy in the first place—to philosophize. She demonstrates this with his words “Philosophy is philosophizing” (299). She also shows us that Heidegger, “…argues that being is obscured in a distinctive way by the emptiness lived in profound boredom” (308). This is tricky since it is in the mood of boredom where we are not in despair, nor in the heat of pleasure. Remember that this kind of boredom is to be distinguished from the kind of boredom that one might have while reading a tiresome book, or by watching a movie that’s too long. There is a kind of in-depth non-incidental boredom that’s enough to bring about a critical anxiety for Heidegger’s concept. This in turn helps us to wholly experience our being and then to comprehend that being is to be held out against the backdrop of nothingness only if we’re open enough to it to begin with. A boring book only hints at the entrenched undercurrent of boredom and nothingness that Heidegger wants us to think of and become attuned to it first hand.
Yes, nothingness! Heidegger’s question of metaphysics rests on a confrontation with the nothing. I’ll spell this out in more detail later. Meanwhile I’d like to illustrate a little more about the way we need to think of boredom as differentiated from this everyday notion of simply being bored with a book you’re reading. Goodstein explains that to be bored with something, in the sense that a book ‘bores’ you, implies a causal relationship that is only one way to think of boredom (i.e. the book is causing my boredom). A more existential and philosophical boredom needs to be a bored ‘attunement’ (a primordial understanding). We are, when in this latter mood, no longer simply bored by a thing (object), rather we are bored over and beyond a particular situation. Goodstein identifies this as the “…nihilistic dynamic of boredom though which the modern subject’s quotidian discontents spiral into negative revelations of the meaninglessness of existence” (314). Incidentally, this leads to the universality of the mood of boredom that blurs the distinction between objective and subjective states of mind. To be bored because of a specific circumstance is different than being bored in spite of the circumstance. The two are similar and one can ultimately lead to the other to reveal our personal temporality as a subject in a universal way.
We usually become overly concerned with time when we’re bored in both instances. However, when we become indifferent to a situation and become bored over and beyond it, only then do we start we see what Heidegger’s trying to show us. When we are bored in this way, we become acutely aware of the passage of time with respect to our lives and our own finitude. An event can just be passing before us, boring us as just another event in time, accelerating faster toward our own eventual death.
In a strange way, Heidegger is suggesting that boredom is an ‘attunement’, a mood to attune us to grasp our individual being, our particular Dasien. As promised, I wanted to spell out his metaphysical question and how this relates to boredom. Heidegger’s concept of anxiety gets more press then does his work on boredom. While both are classified by him as moods, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, as I hinted at earlier, boredom will lead to anxiety. Heidegger also thought that science gets in the way of philosophical thinking and I wholeheartedly agree that it does. One way he shows this is in his lecture: What is Metaphysics? Here, he basically shows us that science doesn’t bother to concern itself with nothing, since its ‘logical’ focus is always on something. Science “irrupts” (invades, overcomes, infiltrates) being (95). With this said, it becomes obvious that scientific thinking has ignored the ‘nothing’. It is in the very confrontation, Heidegger believes, between being and nothingness where metaphysics emerges. Aside from how Heidegger presents this, I’ll be quick to acknowledge the powerful connection between religion and metaphysics. The implications of nothing therefore precede this connection. If we didn’t have the effects of boredom we wouldn’t find it within our lives to start anxiously confronting life. First we’re bored, then we’re anxious, and then we face nothingness and then we do philosophy! “This boredom reveals beings as a whole.” (Heidegger 99) and then “Anxiety reveals the nothing.” (Heidegger 101).
Okay, okay, but isn’t it easier to check my incoming messages, and to fritter away my free time like everyone else? And why put myself through the misery of this seemingly over-thought-out concept of boredom presented by some old redneck German guy back in the 30’s? Then we’re back to the obvious question again: why philosophize in the first place? This, more or less, is what Heidegger wants to demonstrate, that it’s in our distracted everydayness where we find these moods that can press us into the deep of our own existence. Everydayness hides our existence from us, but access can only be found in the day-to-day. Our everyday world is where we find these things. The effect of boredom is the work of philosophy. We wouldn’t discover this were we not frustrated and bored enough to begin with.
Goodstein, Elizabeth S. “Heidegger’s Existential Grammar of Boredom” Experience without Qualities. Stanford, CA: Stanford U. Press. 2005. (281-333). Print.
Heidegger, Martin. “What is Metaphysics?” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 2008. pp. 90-110. Print.
July 10, 2012 § Leave a Comment
“For knowledge, like the sun at its zenith, identifies things strictly.”—Walter Benjamin [1}
The British composer Brian Ferneyhough (1943- ) wrote this avant-garde piece for solo guitar back in the 80’s (1983-89). The specific performance I’m analyzing was played by the Belgian guitarist Kobe van Cauwenberghe (1970 ?- ) in Darmstadt, Germany in 2010. Ferneyhough writes that this seven movement suite was directly inspired by a series of seven short writings titled Kurze Schatten[4} (short shadows) by the philosopher/literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). [note: the above video only features movements 1-4.]
Ferneyhough notes that Benjamin’s text is about the noon-time sun “…which, as it approaches its zenith casts shadows that become progressively shorter and darker until, at noon, that they are so perfectly united with their objects that the latter stand uniquely and completely themselves, naked, without residue.” To this allusion Ferneyhough adds that this imagery of the noon sun’s compressing shadows corresponds to his composition with the “physically delimited ‘text’ of the guitar.” We can certainly sense this abbreviated effect when we listen to the piece. The generous use of silence, snapped pizzicatos, rigid arpeggios and irrational rhythms show this idea by the way the music is brought together in a style that’s tight and restricted. This tense sense of anxiety characterizes all the seven movements. The initial surprise with the snapped pizzicatos and severe staccatos in the 1st movement present an image of the hot noon sun almost in a literal way. For example, the abruptly snapped strings would have to have a much higher frequency wavelength than would a long low droning note, compare this to the noon sun’s actual radiating light frequency which would also be measured at a higher wavelength than in the late afternoon. Another odd specification of Ferneyhough’s is found on the score. Here we find the instruction for changing scordaturas, meaning to re-tune the guitar in a specific way, in this case strings are slackened then are tuned for specified movements. This slackening and gradual tuning back to a ‘traditional’ attunement throughout the seven movements also symbolizes an alignment with the sun’s rays. The hot sun directs us into contemplation as it’s our lifelong reference point. High noon is the peak of radiance only if we notice it as such. The mood of this music is anxiously hot.
All of this is brought together in a strange atonal composition. To be sure, it lacks a tonal center and there’s no overall key signature. One has to make listening adjustments for this, as we’re usually listening for the customary evenly timed melodies in a designated key within a simple uncomplicated meter. If the noon-time sun confines shadows, then Ferneyhough’s piece forces us inward to a more disciplined listening. As a matter of fact, the insistent snapping of the strings is reminiscent of a lion tamer’s whip snap. For this peculiar music we have to become ‘tamed’ into appreciating its many nuances with its pressured dynamics.
The constant fluctuation of irrational rhythms and bizarre intervals feels choppy and discordant because we typically demand a rational structure for our music more than we think. Yet, we’ve grown accustomed to hearing discordant sounds all the time. Think of the sounds of a city street. Certainly Ferneyhough may not have had a city street in mind, but we still get a polyphonic ‘collage’ of almost familiar resonances from the guitar. A few of the sudden arpeggios recall a momentary Flamenco strumming. Also the way van Cauwenberghe thrums the face of the guitar with his hands evokes a youthful devil-may-care spontaneity that’s carefully written into the piece as a gesture of whimsical organized randomness (if that’s not a contradiction in and of itself). These elements add a reserved flare and drama to the piece.
To think of the many difficulties this piece presents, we have to then challenge ourselves to understand it better if we are drawn in enough. When our midday shadow becomes closer to our person we can imagine the threshold of ourselves. As we listen to this music we can imagine the challenges it presented for van Cauwenberghe, just take a look at the elaborate score to get feel for the prowess he must have to even read it properly—let alone to perform it. But if we can take this idea of constraint and drawing inward as a method of rigor and studious listening, then I believe we’re getting closer to cherishing Feneyhough’s overall aesthetic intent: transcendence.
 Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934. ed. Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard University. 1999. pp. 268-274.
 See: www.kobevancauwenberghe.com
 Ferneyhough, Brian. Kurze Schatten II (intro. to the score). London: Peters Edition. 1983-89. www.editionpeters.com
 Benjamin, Walter. op. cit.
 Ferneyhough, Brian. op. cit.
 Ferneyhough, Brian. op. cit.
 See Ferneyhough’s bio on Edition-Peter’s website: http://www.edition-peters.com/composer/Ferneyhough-Brian
June 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
rineke dijkstra“bull fighter vila franca de xira and montemor o novo, portugal” / 1994/ c-print
adorno is famous for saying (in translation) that “to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.” this was notably said after the horrors of world war ii & therefore after reason’s demise. his statement is rather tough for us to listen to, considering the fact that we evaluate most things with a capitalist’s measure—that is ‘does it sell?’ because of our one-dimensional rationalism, we tend to think that to buy comfort, pleasure, privilege &c. is the rule. all the while, we forget & ignore the tangible value of ever noticing our own day-to-day suffering & that of others. when suffering is to be done away with (when it is to be purchased away), we also recoil when it stares at us (as it usually does), and as it posits itself in the unnerving manner of artistic expression. so, if we can’t look to suffering as way to understand our own struggles, then how can we see what we’ve done to ourselves by distancing each other from the very nature we pretend to love? art shows us these enigmatic problems & it is this hard-to-recognize expression that often scares us away & it suggests the very natural discomforts we run from. again, we look to art for answers, but we should be critical of the wholeness we seek, since the whole is never what it might seem to define completely without pain & without essential mystery. with this said, I offer gratitude again to reinaert de v. for showing us how adorno magnifies what we can’t see & what we’re afraid to know about art & aesthetics.
“Authentic artworks, which hold fast to the idea of reconciliation with nature by making themselves completely into a second nature, have consistently felt the urge, as if in need of a breath of fresh air, to step outside themselves. Since identity is not to be their last word, they sought consolation in first nature.” (AT, p.63)
Adorno distinguishes two separate though overlapping ‘worlds’ or spheres. On the one hand there is the mediated world of social convention we live in, which he terms Second Nature, and which consists of all we have made our own and has thereby become an extension of our-selves. And on the other side of the divide there is First Nature, consisting of everything unmade, unmediated, and thus outside of our reach, that “has its substance in what withdraws from universal conceptuality.” (AT, p.70) Authentic artworks express this duality. They reveal the tension that exists between these two opposite poles, which lets itself be felt as a fundamental divide between what ‘merely is’, and what could, nay, what should be. Accordingly, these works express that there will always be something missing, something that eludes our grasp, and does not conform or bend to our will. Namely, something to be found out there, in First Nature, and in particular in Natural Beauty which appears alive (AT, p.5) – “luminous from within” – as though something more. It is the difference or contrast between these two worlds that ‘animates’ and brings to life natural objects. But by holding “fast to the idea of reconciliation with nature”, authentic artworks come to find consolation in the knowledge that, as Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) so pointedly put it: “never the twain shall meet”. The longing of artworks to reconcile themselves – become one – with First Nature, stems from the “immediacy” (AT, p.70) of the mediated world of conventions that suffocates them. It is their need of fresh air that makes them go out in search of new forms that allow them to ‘bridge the unbridgeable’ and ‘express the inexpressible’, in order to escape a world closing in on them – and to open it up by re-establishing contact with what is ‘outside’ of it. But in the process of doing so, they reveal themselves to be in fact Second Nature, because by aiming and ultimately failing to become First Nature, artworks fully crystallize undisturbed into Second Nature. After all, as we saw, the nearer one gets to it, the more elusive and ephemeral it becomes: “fleeting to the point of déjà vu…” And more importantly, following from the above, everything at the work’s disposal, content as well as form, can never escape being conditioned and determined beforehand, for all of our experiences are by definition mediated. So it is in their “immanent problems of form” that they bring out the “complex of tensions” and “unresolved antagonisms of reality” which “converges with the real essence” of the work (AT, p.6). Through the drama of the struggle between First and Second Nature, as embodied in great works of art, it finally manages to let go. That is, the admittance of its failure, as exposed in its inherent shortcomings – its authenticity –, allows the artwork to open up and surrender itself to First Nature, “as if in need of a breath of fresh air”. And it is this beautiful failure, a gesture at something more, outside itself, that makes First Nature enter the work and illuminate it from within . Thus revealing the limits of our reach and the vicissitudes of reality, as well as its transience (AT, p.70).
“If in keeping with Hegel’s insight all feeling related to an aesthetic object has an accidental aspect, usually that of psychological projection, then what the work demands from its beholder is knowledge, and indeed, knowledge that does justice to it: The work wants its truth and untruth to be grasped.” (AT, p.15)
And here we come to the heart of the matter, where Natural Beauty, history, and the development of art grab into each other like cogs. Because on the one hand Natural Beauty seems to suggest a purely random process of continuous growth and development, while on the other hand certain objects and artworks light up as if they have got something to tell, while others lie dormant. So the question becomes: what is it about these particular works and objects that makes them flare up in the first place? The answer may lie in the mechanism of projection. For even though nature feeds and sustains us, in its materiality it remains indifferent to our affairs, it thus provides the perfect foil for our endeavors. Not only does art share this indifference to the extent that – for it to stand out and create an opening – it is continually forced to split-off and run counter to “reality’s compulsion to identity” (AT, p.4), freeing the artwork “to model the relation of whole and part according to the work’s own need” (AT, p.4) through which it gains its luster. But in its very effort to fend off reality’s compulsion, art is compelled to ally itself with the non-identical – with what resists and does not bend to our will – linking it even further to nature. Because for it to distinguish itself, merely changing its appearance will not do when everything has already been conquered and mediated by spirit, it would only be more of the same. Which is why, to be truly challenging the work needs to be non-identical as well, or to identify itself with what is suppressed – that is nature. However, art, like everything else, can only sustain itself by retaining its self-identity, or as Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) says “one paints a painting, not what it represents.” (AT, p.4) Yet, due to its alliance with the non-identical, art’s identity is by its very nature unstable, so much so that art and artworks are “right into the smallest detail of their autonomy […] something foreign and opposed to it” (AT, p.4) and therefore prone to self-annihilation. It is in this sense that art’s development closely resembles and mirrors that of society’s, since both are driven by the same dialectic of nature and its domination. To survive in a hostile and unaccommodating world, man had no choice but to slowly detach himself from his immediate surroundings, and subject them to his will, but by severing those ties one by one, he became more and more estranged from his humble beginnings. Art, owing to its sympathy for the non-identical, followed man in his detachment from nature – essentially a process of disenchantment – which has culminated in his autonomy and self-mastery. This autonomy art achieved by separating itself from the imprints of nature’s heterogeneous material, freeing it from its cultic roots and religious aura, and allowing it “to take every possible object as an object of art […] and expunged from it the rawness of what is unmediated by spirit.” (AT, p.63)
[coming up] more on the role of projection in the dialectic of art and society.
 The “beautiful failure” of an artwork exposes a lack. By showing ‘how things are’ in their endless variety and complexity, authentic artworks simultaneously show how things should or could be. After all, ‘the way things are’ never quite matches up with our expectations thereof. This sense of longing for something “more” – for something that will in fact ultimately fulfill our deepest desires and highest hopes – and which is felt through its painful absence, is exemplary of the works of James Joyce (1882-1941), especially his haunting masterpiece “Ulysses” (1922). But one can also see something similar at work in Charles Baudelaire’s notion of beauty. The fullness of an artwork thus springs forth paradoxically from an experienced lack. Since it cannot be directly stated or ‘brought out into the open’, only indirectly alluded to: it enters the work from the outside, as it were. Therefore, as with man’s autonomy, an artwork can only be considered art, if it appears to be more than the sum of its parts. Adorno uses the metaphor of a child sitting at a piano “searching for a chord never previously heard. This chord, however, was always there; the possible combinations are limited and actually everything that can be played on it is implicitly given in the keyboard. The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself: That is what everything new suffers from.” (AT, p.32). However, to achieve the desired result – of showing ‘how things are [and were]’ – a thorough mastery of the subject matter is required. For precisely this mastery will allow the artist in his work (and the beholder of it) to overcome and be free of ‘all that is’: “Subjective pleasure in the artwork would approximate a state of release from the empirical as from the totality of the heteronomous. Schopenhauer might have been the first to realize this. The happiness gained from artworks is that of having suddenly escaped, not a morsel of that from which art escaped.” (AT, p.15) – and thus, it is “the totality of the heteronomous [i.e. ‘all that is’]” “over which, for their happiness, [artworks] must soar and back into which at every moment they threaten once again to tumble” (AT, p.6). Unsurprisingly, art’s “beautiful failure” also points to a continuous frustration with ‘how things are’, being that it is what prevents art from fully expressing itself, destining it to pull back the curtain on reality’s inevitable shortcomings. This inherent tension or ‘critical tendency’ of art is the reason why Adorno warns not to rest in the pleasurable feeling it affords, since it would amount to a state of release and a dissipation of energies. Instead Adorno promotes poetry that retreats “into what abandons itself unreservedly to the process of disillusionment. It is this that constitutes the irresistibility of Beckett’s work.” (AT, p.16) For the modernist poetry of Samuel Barclay Beckett (1906-1989) is no longer satisfied with mere spielerei, because, in a sense, there is no more room to play – no more outside. The absurd and fragmentary style of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is another instructive example of what, according to Adorno, constitutes modern art. For Kafka’s writing not only successfully captures the modern subject’s complete alienation from self and society in its depictions of rampant bureaucracy. But due to its radical idiosyncrasy – “the subject thrown back on himself” (AT, p.63) – it also creates these cryptic self-enclosed worlds that reflect in a negative or inverted way, modernity’s ever-expanding reach: “artworks as windowless monads “represent” what they themselves are not” (AT, p.5). The question however is, if art has to forever discard the beautiful in favor of anguish and disillusionment, or if instead there will come a time when there will be once again room for wonder and beauty – as Adorno himself notes: “It is outside the purview of aesthetics today whether it is to become art’s necrology.” (AT, p.4) For further reading on this latter issue, I strongly recommend Sir Ernst Gombrich’s highly original and beautifully written study of “The Preference for the Primitive”.
[Footnote 7] By “severing those ties” which bind us to nature, man in effect ‘blinded’ himself. For ‘Reason’ needs something that resists in order for it to keep its bearings and stay its course, a “rawness [that] is unmediated by spirit” (AT, p.3). Because the downside of being able “to take every possible object as an object of art” (AT, p.63) is that art fully sides with the subject, and in doing so becomes subservient to man’s (arbitrary) will. From that moment on decisions on what to depict and how, are made irrespective of material necessity, which leads to a subversion of “the primacy of the object in subjective experience.” (AT, p.71) And with the object thus demoted and dismissed, art merely mirrors the personal taste of a solitary subject, detached from its surroundings. Meanwhile the surroundings, in their turn, are transformed to fit the needs (as well as the wishes and whimsies) of this newly liberated subject, further suppressing the ‘otherness’ of the object. After all, the subject only becomes liberated through newly advanced techniques of control and ‘repression’: methods and techniques that are the direct result (and expression) of the distancing of the subject. It is important to recall in this respect, that every transformative act – that engages the subject – is in fact a creative act, and, as such, one of artistry. Which is why, as we will see, religion more fully absorbs and reflects its immediate surroundings, its locality, than modernity does – to which it is a precursor. The reason for this is that during this ‘intermediate phase’ of development, man has not yet gained the upper hand. He is still unable to fundamentally transform and control his surroundings. So that, in order to make them more hospitable to human endeavors, he can only hope to ‘bribe the gods’ and ‘meet them halfway’. Religion therefore, represents the first colossal effort by man to come to terms (and grips) with his environment, and to establish some kind of relationship or ‘rapport’ with it, if only to make sense of it all – or to orient himself. All this, of course, by hopelessly inadequate means, and driven in large part by fear. Yet, in an important sense, the values thus created are thoroughly informed by their circumstances and more expressive of man’s needs. Basically it is this ‘respect for the object’ or “attitude to objectivity” (AT, p.3) that Adorno thinks is crucial for us to retain, or re-attain. Not simply to affirm a new or better state of affairs, since by definition “suffering is objectivity that weighs upon the subject.” Quite the contrary: its aim is to “let suffering speak” for it “is a condition of all truth.” (Negative Dialectics, 1966, p.17-18) In other words, “the primacy of the object” functions both as a whetstone for the mind, in that it keeps us sharp, critical of our conditions – i.e. reflexive – and free. And as a marker, providing us with directions. Thereby protecting us from a potentially devastating blindness. For as we have seen, with the arrival of modernity everything has become extremely malleable and cloaked in our (self-)image, due to technological advances. Slowly turning modernity into a ‘singularity’, or a place where – because of the resultant loss of resistance – things start to lose their meaning and bearing, and eventually run the risk of collapsing in upon themselves. Similar to the tragic myth of Oedipus therefore, ‘Reason’s’ ascendancy or its ‘coming of age’, was only possible at the high prize of self-immolation: i.e. a loss of critical reflection due to a repudiation of its origins. For more information, see footnote 12 on the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” where this Freudian aspect – the hidden cost of self-preservation – is explained in detail. The prescient writings on exoticism by the French poet, surgeon, and interpreter Victor Segalen (1878-1919), may shed additional light on the complexities surrounding modernity and the magnitude of its impact.
May 29, 2012 § 1 Comment
lily van der stokker / money / 1999 / silkscreen print
…& here is the 2nd installment on adorno’s aesthetic theory by reinaert de v. …reinaert de v. writes: “Allegorical intention finds its roots in this fundamental mystery.” this line exemplifies one of adorno’s challenges to place art in a semi-indefinable range of possibility & potential. once we are able to view & think of art as unclosed & “non-identical” & with parts that are essentially “irreducible”, we can then start to see how this leads to adorno’s important concept of “negative dialectics” which unravels the rational closure of hegel’s speculative absolutions & propels us away from the surety of the enlightenment. again, this is unlike the way we commonly think of aesthetics, but where would critical theory be without it?
“Natural beauty is suspended history, a moment of becoming at a standstill. Artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension are those that are justly said to have a feeling for the natural. Yet this feeling is – in spite of every affinity to allegorical interpretation – fleeting to the point of déjà vu and is no doubt all the more compelling for its ephemeralness.” (AT, p.71)
Sentences like these are commonplace when dealing with Theodor W. Adorno. His fragmentary or aphoristic style, combined with a highly cerebral and condensed way of putting things, while often exhilarating, can also be quite daunting at times. Every single sentence seems super charged with meaning and part of a complex circuitry that aims to shock and electrify. With the way themes get introduced and developed, it would not be stretching the truth to say that Adorno – who after all was a musicologist too – ‘composes’ his philosophy. But even though everything is intricately interconnected with everything else, making it very easy to get stuck or lost, one obviously has to start somewhere. So I wish to begin my exposé by unpacking this first cluster of sentences, which I believe is crucial because it lies at the centre of his finely spun web of subtly interwoven layers of meanings. By gently pulling this thread – which I have to admit, is more like a lifeline to me – I hope to get hold of, or make sense of “a voluptuousness for the mind in a train of thought he can never fully unravel…” (AT, p.63)
By defining Natural Beauty as “a moment of becoming at a standstill”, one can almost picture it, and indeed one should ‘picture’ it. Because “artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension” – be it paintings, photos, novels, movies or whatever – are not unlike snapshots of a process. Albeit, a very elusive and peculiar kind of process, one that needs an unwavering eye to capture it, the eye of a true artist. It is by no means by accident that Adorno speaks about “suspended history” in this context, for it is actually human history, or our historical development in relation to nature, as mirrored in art, that is the subject of his aesthetics. Which brings us to the second part of his definition: the affinity of the feeling of momentary suspension to “allegorical interpretation”. On the one hand, and despite this affinity, he contrasts it with allegorical interpretation, due to the ephemeral nature of this feeling. What he means by this, I think, is that through allegorical interpretation meanings have usually become fixed or stabilized, and thereby appropriated. While the affinity he has in mind has to do with allegory’s potential for creating new meaning, which happens when something stands in for something else – or, as happens in nature, when something changes or seems to change into something else. So it is the allegorical intention (AT, p.71) that creates the momentary suspension – a state of reverie – which functions like an opening for an associative or kaleidoscopic process to take hold. Every artwork that successfully captures or duplicates it, basically turns it into a still, or ‘distills’ it, by tapping into but only capturing part of it, because in actuality it is a natural process of recurring and continual change. Thus, while sharing in it, in the end it is a richness the work can merely evoke or allude to. And it is this ephemeral process, which feels like déjà vuthat makes artworks resonate with Natural Beauty.
“According to the canon of universal concepts [Natural Beauty] is undefinable precisely because its own concept has its substance in what withdraws from universal conceptuality.” (AT, p.70)
Allegorical intention finds its roots in this fundamental mystery. Due to nature’s inherent indeterminateness, as being essentially non-human, or something foreign and sealed-off from thought, it makes ascribing a priori statements about what Natural Beauty consists in into a futile enterprise. Nonetheless, without these efforts Natural Beauty as a concept would remain empty and silent – like an empty canvas or a blank screen with nothing to project on. Leading Adorno to conclude that if Natural Beauty is to be sought in anything at all, it must be in the way that natural ‘non-man-made’ things, and those things taken back into nature’s fold, tend to speak to us, or “resonate”. In other words, beauty is to be found in their eloquence (AT, p.70), in that which enables these seemingly random objects to reach out to us, and makes them shimmer as if “luminous from within” (AT, p.70), and appear as “more than what is literally there” (AT, p.71). It is through the spell they cast, binding us to them, that ignoring, or denying their individual worth and uniqueness, becomes impossible. Gaining in voice to the degree that they are foreign, other, new, or left out – in proportion to which they elude us. It is this feature that makes them stand out and that lets us experience them. And yet,
“Without receptivity there would be no such objective expression, but it is not reducible to the subject; natural beauty points to the primacy of the object in subjective experience.” (AT, p.71)
Adorno takes great pains to point out there is something, though mediated, that is irreducible in its foreignness and externality, that is doing the talking – albeit, through us. There is a good reason for this, for without what he terms “the primacy of the object”, there would not be any ‘talking’ going on, in fact there would not be anything to convey. There would solely be the subject caught in a gilded self-made cage, built around pleasurable and self-congratulatory feelings. And according to him, such a life, cut off from the outside world, would not simply amount to self-amputation, but eventually end up being, to quote Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” – a fact Adorno believed two World Wars had borne out. Luckily for us, the “objective expression” found in Natural Beauty implies “receptivity” on the part of the subject, for without it there would be nothing to receive, nor any reaction to it. At the same time though, this receptivity should not be taken for granted, because there is a threshold: in order for the object to be received it should not be merely external to the subject but non-identical (AT, p.4) as well. What he means by this, is that through familiarizing ourselves with the world, which at first appeared to us as a chaotic and heterogeneous whole, we not only came to master it by dividing it up – making it more manageable – but we re-created it into our image along the way, expulsing what could not be accommodated. We quite literally ‘subjected’ the world around us, making us lose track of it in the process. In this sense, objects identified as ‘part of this world’ are not really external anymore but have become extensions of the subject, making receptivity – since they would be ‘more of the same’ – superfluous. For the potential to relate implied by receptivity, demands conscious effort on our part. It suggests responsiveness, and a need to grapple with what is ‘outside’. It implies a challenge.
[coming up] more on Natural Beauty and its relationship to Art.
 Since Adorno’s philosophy is essentially about ‘openness’ and the creation of what is wholly new and original. Thinking, especially in the free and undelineated form of an essay – which has a certain artfulness about it – is (his) philosophy put into action, because it is a thought processor an experience in and of itself: a place where the particular and the personal are allowed to speak, where variety and the fragmentary are not shunned.
 “Allegorical interpretation” in this way is closely related to Adorno’s concept of mimesis. Because even though ‘nature’s continual and recurrent change’ speaks of a wealth that man can merely allude and aspire to, it was while being under nature’s mercurial spell – a state of dreamlike reverie – that he was forced to imitate its cruelty and fickleness to stay afloat. And so it is through our original interaction with nature – a complete surrender to the outside – that we absorbed a plethora of forms through which we learned to express and externalize ourselves, thereby gaining an abundance of idioms. In other words, “allegorical interpretation” in this sense, is a kind of imitation without full understanding, that has allowed man to acquire nature’s formal language. “Déjà vu”, however, points to the fact that each expression seems to contain a reference to something else, outside itself, from which it originated and sprouted forth. Given all this, we can conclude that man’s slow but steady progress resembles awakening from an often frightening and fitful sleep; after all, we only become fully conscious of our actions after initiating them.
 There is a subtle dialectic of binding and unbinding at work in “Aesthetic Theory”. Where, if pushed to excess, both nature’s binding and society’s unbinding can blind us – see footnotes 7 and 12 on detachment and survival. It is therefore all about finding the proper balance or critical distance. Even so, both nature and society cast their respective spells, for though we are driven in the arms of society to escape nature’s bonds, we can only hope to resist society’s universal bondage by offsetting it with the unique and particular found in nature. Hence, at first sight art seems to function as Aufhebung of thesis (nature) and antithesis (society), by carrying both to another level. Yet on closer inspection art turns out to be both nature’s and society’s “pure anti-thesis” (AT, p.62), since society is actually the sublimation and adaptation of nature’s drive to domination and objectification. “The song of birds is found beautiful by everyone; no feeling person in whom something of the European tradition survives fails to be moved by the sound of a robin after a rain shower. Yet something frightening lurks in the song of birds precisely because it is not a song but obeys the spell in which it is enmeshed. The fright appears as well in the threat of migratory flocks, which bespeak ancient divinations, forever presaging ill fortune. With regard to its content, the ambiguity of natural beauty has its origin in mythical ambiguity…” (AT, p.66)