March 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Reading the philosophy of Edmund Husserl is no small task. This is the kind of reading that requires patience along with the foresight that one will have to read and reread paragraphs till any semblance of coherence begins to unfold and unfurl. It is tempting bring in the analogy of mining for precious metals, where to find the philosophy, one would have to dig deep through the strata to find a bright and brilliant fragment of value. To think of Husserl’s phenomenology like this is a mistake. Robert Sokolowski toward the end of his paper on Husserl’s categorical intuition speaks of a clarified approach to philosophy in a general “Philosophy only works by quoting, so to speak, the pre-philosophical, and by presenting, from a new and special angle, what was already present in the pre-philosophical” (140). It is as if we must regard the basic experience of categorical intuition as already there in our day-to-day moments to understand it not only philosophically, but also phenomenologically. To do philosophy with Husserl is just a matter of bringing in the methods and challenges of phenomenology to bear in consciousness, to then thematize the minute complexity that’s already present in the totality of the experiences, perceptions, cognitions, and intentions themselves that are already alive with conscious experiencing.
The goal for this post will not be to summarize Husserl’s phenomenological project. Instead, we’ll turn our attention to a single feature, categorical intuition. This choice is not random since it will lead to some fundamental questions concerning Husserl’s early work developing phenomenology in the Logical Investigations. We’ll also look to Martin Heidegger’s elaboration and extension of the term in his 1925 lecture series titled History of the Concept of Time, these were the preliminary lectures that put forth much of the groundwork for Being and Time. It is also important to pay gratitude to Robert Sokolowski’s paper “Husserl’s Concept of Categorial Intuition.” Sokolowski always has a masterful way of making Husserl’s phenomenology accessible and clear. Dermot Moran also deserves high praise for all his scholarship surrounding Husserl’s philosophy. He introduces the shorter edition of the Logical Investigations we’re using here. In addition, Moran worked with Joseph Cohen on The Husserl Dictionary which provided a well needed resource for all the recondite phenomenological words Husserl deploys, coupled with their difficult to pin down ideas.
Categorial intuition (kategoriale Anschauung) (Moran, Cohen 59) is dealt with extensively throughout chapter six in Husserl’s Logical Investigations. Let’s begin to unfold the term by trying to understand how we come to perceive things. Essentially when we perceive something we find it “fulfilled” as matter and we also understand these things as “…beyond their nominal terms” (Husserl 339). Fulfillment is a special term Husserl uses to indicate a kind of conscious immersion in the way the object is presented in its perceptual way, but this also involves the structure of how it’s identified and how it is intended. We’ll address fulfillment first, then go back to identification, so “…the fulfillment is the experience of the coincidence between the empty intention [not immediately present] and its fulfilling object” (Moran, Cohan 130). This fulfillment happens during the broader act of intending, which means roughly “…the ‘aboutness’ or ‘directedness of our conscious state (Moran, Cohan, 167). This then indicates that even when we have the intention of an object before us it is a fulfillment to be in recognition of the fact that the object is presently and fully regarded. The object is fulfilled during the intention of it. When absent the object is not present in this way—it is emptily intended “…in its intuitive absence it is [symbolized] …in a token way…” (Moran, Cohen 104).
The categorical is not the object itself but the way the object is present to our understanding of it. Sokolowski calls the categorical a “syntactical” (128). The word syntactical is a big hint that the categorical is a structural component that helps us understand our relationship to how we perceive the world in the round. Therefore, a syntactical structuring isn’t a component of linguistics exclusively, but to be regarded within experience in general, where the categorical is representative of the syntactical framework of experience. Husserl indicates that the categorical is connected to the syntactical term: “copula” (339). When Husserl writes of categorical intuition as it relates to a piece of white paper, he’s keen to make it clear that in a sentence like “white paper is paper which is white” the word “is” is categorical (341).
With all of this said, categorial intuition is much more than just the word “is”, it simultaneously has to do with how the presence of the is-ness of white is intuited within the perceptual experience and not built upon it. It has to do with the being of whiteness presented to us as we experience the paper. As Husserl puts it, it is how “…the apparent object announces itself as self-given” (341). There are points where Husserl calls the categorical “supersensuous” (349), probably to indicate that it involves the sensuous, while at the same time, the categorial also involves more than just sense. Sokolowski identifies the categorical in the way that the object is known to us as “presencing” (129). This is not a feature of the object in and of itself, but how it’s known to me in all its verisimilitude. This is a phenomenological way to explain and to present how an object is made objective not in successive steps, but simultaneously within the actual experience, where identification is brought together within the “presencing” of a particular object (Sokolowski 129). Sokolowski writes that this coming together of identity and presence where “the identity, the belonging of a feature to its object, the object’s being and such, is what corresponds intuitively to word ‘is’ when we say, ‘S is p’” (131).
We normally think of our world filled with stuff be we never stop to think of how we understand the in-between ‘is-ness’ of these things. The ‘is’ of these things has to do with the being of the things, yet even Husserl attests “among these [things] anything like ‘is’ is naturally not to be found” (345). A quick glance through the dictionary tells us that the meaning of the word “is” is the third person singular present of the word “be” (Oxford 715). This should give us the bigger hint that the idea of “is” has to do with being in a fundamental and experiential way. This “is” or its syntactical equivalents, do not just happen in subjective perception but in the fullest rush of all objective experience. So Husserl has to clarify that the intuition of the object as fulfilled and that our reflected judgment of a basic reflection is not something we do when we reflect on the “is” of something (347). Then he continues to define catergorial intuition partially by what it is not.
Not in reflection upon judgments, nor even the upon fulfillments of judgments, but in the fulfillments of judgments themselves lies in the true source of the concepts State of Affairs and Being (in the copulative sense) (347).
There’s a phenomenological job to decipher what Husserl’s pointing to as much as it is to notice that he’s saying that the categorical does not happen “upon” the judgments, or “upon” the fulfillment of judgments. States of affairs are about the tangible world as it’s presented to us in a particular way where the judgment is “…essentially involved with conceptualization and generalization” (Moran, Cohen 173). This is part of how we conceptualize being prephilosophically, we know something is here or it is not here without anyone needing to thematize the occurrence for us. Yet, it is only when we put name to this phenomena do we begin describe the philosophical import of these primary acts of cognition that appear to elude everyday expression and then some.
Looking onward, anyone who has read even a little bit of Heidegger will know of the utmost precedence he placed on ontology—re: Dasein and being. Sokolowski, Moran and Cohen together attest the curious fact that Heidegger was strongly impressed with Husserl’s discovery of categorical intuition as it is inextricably linked to being (Moran, Cohen 60), (Sokolowski 128). In Heidegger’s exhaustive preliminary section given in his description of the “fundamental discover[ies]” (27) by Husserl of the three concepts of intentionality, categorical intuition and the a-priori, Heidegger writes that the objectivity of “…categorical intuition is itself the objective manner in which reality itself can become more truly objective” then he broadens this to “there is no ontology alongside a phenomenology. Rather, scientific ontology is nothing but phenomenology” (72). There’s a reason Heidegger is calling the categorical intuition a discovery, because what was there to be discovered had been with us all along—being. We use it, but we don’t know how we’re using it. We’re living within it. We just don’t know how to conceptualize the way we’re living within it. Let us recall that Husserl does write of the categorical as related to being “…so the concept of Being can arise only when some being, actual or imaginary, is set before our eyes” (347).
It’s easy to brush off Husserl only as a stepping-stone to better appreciate the mature Heidegger, which is what Heidegger might’ve approved of. The objective here is not to do that. All we had to do was look at one of Husserl’s terms unfold and then to notice that we have before us a phenomenological vantage that positions us before the expanse of experience itself—before Heidegger. The descriptive potential of trying to understand what catergorial intuition means will serve to broaden our capacity for knowledge of the abstractions that are involved with basic perception and how we intuit, experience and know them even before we put words to them.
Yet, there is always an almost perverse and hermetic quality to Husserl’s work that’s daunting and intimidating to most. This gives us reason to try learning to inhabit our world phenomenologically along with him, because phenomenology gives us the methods by which to know what’s already there. It is on the inside of the frustrating work as we sweat over the terms and their relationships that only gradually open up to conceptualization. None of this would happen without the work of reading and rereading Husserl’s many paragraphs till any semblance of coherence begins to unfold and disclose what we see before us and so on…
Heidegger, Martin. History of the Concept of Time. Trans, Theodore Kisiel. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1979. Print.
Husserl, Edmund. The Shorter Logical Investigations. Trans. J.N. Findlay. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001. Print.
“Is.” The Oxford College Dictionary. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007: 715. Print.
Moran, Dermot and Joseph Cohen. The Husserl Dictionary. New York, NY: Continuum, 2012. Print.
Sokolowski, Robert. “Husserl’s Concept of Categorial Intuition.” Philosophical Topics, 1982: 127-141. PDF file.
March 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Mark Matveyevich Antokolski, The Dying Socrates, 1875.
Socrates died 2,412 years ago by drinking hemlock. The account of the trial that lead to his death sentence is famously documented by Plato in the Apology and also by Xenophon in his Apology. In the introduction to Xenophon’s two works, Raymond Larson tells us that Plato’s account of the trial was probably first hand, whereas Xenophon’s account was through the secondary source of a mutual friend of Socrates, Plato and Xenophon, a man named Hermogenes (17). Although the two accounts differ in certain respects, when combined, they offer the only historical records of the trial. For this paper we’ll focus on the relevance of death and how mortality relates to the philosophy of Socrates.
The way we understand Socrates is by knowing that he died doing philosophy. He was officially charged with impiety (asebeia/ἀσέβεια) and for corrupting the youth of Athens. But, it was also because he was making himself known by calling into question the widely held beliefs of those who would be offended when shown their opinions were wrong. The emphasis here will not be to focus on the charges or the trial outright, instead we will look at the attitude Socrates takes toward death itself in the two Apologies and how his unique way of contending and discussing death philosophically expands our own concepts surrounding end-of-life matters. It is in the extraordinary way in which Socrates eloquently speaks of death (thanatos/θάνατος) that inspires readers with his courage, fortitude and wisdom. He was willing to die for his cause, rather then to live into old age with compromise.
As we all know Plato’s Apology is replete with references to death, probably because Socrates knew that he’d be given the death sentence. Not only does he seem to know that his death was immanent, but he extends the meaning of it to demonstrate that the fear of death is comparable to ignorance.
For the fear of death, men, is in fact nothing other than to seem wise, but to not be so. For it is to seem to know what one does not know: no one knows whether death does not even happen to be the greatest of all goods for the human being; but people fear it as though they knew well that it is the greatest of evils (29a-b).
C.D.C. Reeve in his book on the Apology rightly compares this statement to what he calls “the Digression” (180). This alignment is made with the celebrated ‘digressive’ statement made earlier in Plato’s Apology, where Socrates claims to not be wise and that to be wiser one has to know what one doesn’t know (21b-d). All this is essentially and slyly positioned by Socrates to demonstrate a vital component of Socratic wisdom: know what you don’t know, or at least be cognizant of the fact that there are things that one can be ignorant of. This extends to the ultimate awareness about what we do know, in the sense that sometimes what we think we know more than we do and this might actually be a way to conceal a fundamental ignorance. So how, according to Socrates, can we know that death is something to be feared since we don’t know what happens after death? As we can see, this illustrates a typical problem and habit we have with fearing most of what we cannot understand, in this mindset, things that we don’t understand are things to fear, at least if we are ignorant of the fact that we need not always fear the unknowable, as with the benign things that are unfamiliar or even death itself. Not only do we fear death, but we also fear ignorance itself. It is for this reason that we often wish to conceal ignorance and death at all costs. So, the underlying lesson in the dual example of death and not being wise is manifold. To be wise, is to embrace your own ignorance, at least to the extent that you’re aware of it enough to know when you’re hiding behind knowing something when you really don’t. And it also shows that the fear of death is not something to avoid, but is something to face with fresh eyes, since it’s ultimately inevitable. Socrates cleverly demonstrates that the unknowability of death can disclose these things.
Xenophon’s Apology, as mentioned, does differ from Plato’s, it’s considerably shorter and it also depicts Socrates as having a slightly more down-to-earth attitude toward the issue of his impending death. For Xenophon’s Socrates, death is a welcome avoidance of the infirmities one would possibly have to endure with as old age advances.
But now, if my life continues, I know I’ll have to pay the price of old age […] What pleasure will I get out of life if I see myself deteriorating and reproach myself for it? […] A person is bound to be missed if he passes away with a healthy body and a soul capable of amiability. […] I’ll offend the jury and choose death like a free man rather than slavishly beg for the worthless gain of continued life (6-9).
Here, in Xenophon’s account, as it was conveyed to him by Hermogenes, Socrates almost suggests that to beg for life would be cowardly. It should be evident why death would appear to be the better option, because he would be dying for his cause. As Socrates attested near the end of Xenophon’s account, “I never harmed anyone or made anyone bad […] I helped those I conversed with by freely teaching them every good I was able” (26). It is for these seemingly simple reasons that we are still remembering Socrates—he was a great teacher. In our contemporary era this example seems too quick, it is as if he’s too eager to die. Nowadays we do not hesitate to think in terms of clinging to life at all costs. No matter what, death is always to be avoided. Socrates presents us with an alternatively extreme view that sometimes death is better than life. We must advocate such a view with caution and without any haste, but we do know that the untimely death of a wise man can serve to emphasize his altruistic and noble cause to do philosophy. We still think of Socrates as wise and that he died for his cause.
To continue on this thantic theme, we should include a few more things that shouldn’t be left out. We’ll be sure to recall the oft-repeated quote given by Socrates toward the end of Plato’s Apology after the jury has found him guilty and he is asked to give a ‘counterproposal’ to a possible death sentence. As Socrates speaks, he mildly suggests a possible exile where he would continue his work and the young would listen to his teachings and his way of doing philosophy (37d). He continues with the conviction that even in exile he wouldn’t stop “…conversing and examining both myself and others—and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being…” (38a). Although he is not explicitly speaking of death in this quote, the implication is too strong to ignore. Again, to paraphrase, Socrates is positioning the claim that if one doesn’t actively examine, interrogate and inquire about life and how to live it, he is better off dead. This idea demonstrates his predicament as much as it shows his wisdom. If he is (and, as we know he will be) presented with the death sentence, he can no longer practice his work of doing philosophy, therefore, he can no longer examine life, since he might be asked to keep silent in exile. The lesson is not lost on us either, if we are to truly live an examined life we much inquire, question and examine life as much as we can. Curiosity is at the base of this suggestion. All we have to do is act with a similar conviction to know more about life.
As the trial unfolds in Plato’s Apology, he is in fact, given the death sentence to drink the poisonous hemlock and then he gives his pensive closing remarks. Now that he knows his fate, he has no regrets about the way he defended himself “I prefer to die having made my defense speech in this way than to live in that way” (38e). When he says that he didn’t want ‘to live in that way’ he must have meant that he is proud that he didn’t have to grovel nor beg for his life. This connects with Xenophon’s record to show that Socrates was not willing to compromise his values at any expense, thereby setting a laudable example for the people of Athens and for posterity.
There is another strangely appropriate quote in Plato’s retelling where Socrates is continuing to talk after the death penalty is read, this is where he is sorting through the notion that escape from death could have been a possibility for him had he made a stronger more eloquent plea and defense. “But I suspect it is not hard, men, to escape death, but it is much harder to escape villainy. For it runs faster than death” (39a-b). This is easily directed at his accusers and the percentage of the jury who condemned him to die. The villainy of deciding that someone should die for showing people the truth is not as far-fetched as it sounds on the surface. We already know that sometimes people don’t like to be told the truth of things, namely if the truth is made to expose their ignorance, since we don’t like to be shown to not know something. Villainy is typically characterized as evil, crafty and deceitful, among other things. If we think just for a second about these qualities in comparison to what Socrates is saying, we see his point. People are quick to judge others, it’s easy to find flaw with someone else and it is easy to misinterpret things if we’re not thinking carefully. But villainy calls for darker motives, it’s faster than death because it can’t stay anywhere for too long. A villain doesn’t want to be figured out so he will move with speed, yet the speed belies his deeper problem of plain old ignorance. This kind of ignorance resides in all of us and usually we’re too afraid to see it—to know it. Socrates teaches us these things and then some. His way demonstrates that we must not be afraid to say we don’t know everything, something and nothing.
To be sure, this leaves us with four more pressing questions that have already been implied. How do I contend with my own ignorance? How do I contend with my own death? Then, how does this help me contend with the ignorance of others? And what wisdom is to be had when we witness and contemplate the death of others?
Larson, Raymond. The Apology and Crito of Plato and the Apology and Syposium of Xenophon. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1980. Print.
Plato and Aristophanes. Four Texts on Socrates. Trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998. Print.
Reeve, C.D.C. Socrates in the Apology. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1989. Print.
 The plant from which the hemlock Socrates is made to drink is formally known as Conium. It is a large flowering weed which resembles parsley and grows in many parts of the world, including here in Colorado.
January 2, 2013 § Leave a Comment
December 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
fig. 1. Anonymous. “Monstrance,” silver gilt, 17th century (Denver Art Museum).
Cleverly positioned—in the center of an upper gallery floor at the Denver Art Museum—is the small silver gilt monstrance pictured in Fig. 1., its exact dimensions are not listed, but it looks to be about 16-18” tall, with the diameter of the base around 6-8”. This little monstrance is placed amidst dozens of other pieces of Spanish colonial silver from all over the Americas. This specific piece is from Peru and was made anonymously sometime in the 17th century.
What is a monstrance, you ask? The New Catholic Encyclopedia describes a monstrance as
A liturgical vessel used for showing the Blessed Sacrament at exposition and benediction, and in processions. Its name and the alternative name of Ostensorium are derived from the Latin words monstrare and ostendere both meaning ‘to show.’
Although it is tempting to dive into its historical background as a piece of Spanish colonial silverwork, that history will have to serve as a background to a basic formal analysis. With this in mind, we still have to pay some attention to its form as a religious object and to its relative position in the history of art in general. The fact that it is a display receptacle for the host—a paper thin wafer of fine bread, said to symbolize the body of Christ—is enough to suggest that its form follows its function. Yes, the motto ‘form follows function’ was a popularized during the modernist period of art history in the 20th century. However, this object is not modern per se. If a clear style can be attributed to the piece, it would have to be the Baroque, or better said, the Colonial Spanish Baroque. As we already know, the Baroque is a style that was often characterized by elaborate surface ornamentation coupled (usually) with a strong sense of dramatic movement. This piece does exemplify some of these stylistic motifs in moderation.
On the website Sancta Missa, A.J. Schulte gives a few of the many rigid prescriptions as to how a monstrance must serve as a proper host receptacle, where the upper part, that actually encapsulates the host, must have as its outer frame “the most appropriate form […] of the sun emitting its rays to all sides.” Although in this case, the ornamented pierced eight pointed star doesn’t exactly look like sun’s rays, it does serve as an effective way to bring the utmost attention to the centered circular viewing capsule. Schulte also gives permission to the adoring angels at the stem “…it is appropriate to have two statues representing adoring angels.” In this case, the silversmith seems to have strayed from these liturgical rules and instead of two angels, we have six adoring angels. In addition to the full-bodied angels on the stem, the surrounding star frame includes four tinier adoring angel faces. Incidentally, because of its small size overall, we will assume that this portable monstrance was intended for a small church with a limited budget. Annoyingly, the top piece is bent forward. It would not take too much restoration to make the crooked straight, so as to give this monstrance an ordered appeal, as it is exhibited it looks ever so slightly broken, despite the prominent position given to it in the center of the gallery.
The overall lines of the monstrance are fairly simple. We have a circle atop a line with a proportionate horizontal base that is roughly the size of the filigree star frame itself. The monstrance is entirely symmetrical on both sides (with the slight variations of the all angel’s gestures), this lends to its harmony as a visual object. It has a predictable Platonic order. This symmetry was probably enhanced when the Monstrance was placed on an altar, in situ. And even now, the symmetry is further referenced in the way it is strategically displayed at the museum, flanked by the evenly spaced vitrines on either side of it, with it in the center, in its own vitrine.
This naturally leads us to the shape of the object, which has everything to do with its explicit purpose—that is, to venerate, uphold, display, enshrine and to adore the host. As we have discussed already, the sun’s rays, or better yet, the star shaped frame is eight pointed and this holds the center crystal as the ultimate focal point. The stem is multi-tiered and lathed. This complicated stem, as with any well-made stem of this kind, is direct evidence of the labor it took to fabricate it. The Baroque style demanded such a devotion to intricacy. The six angels must have been affixed after the stem was complete. They are somewhat rough-hewn without much exacting attention given to a making them appear too lifelike and cherubic. They look like winged apparitions who are suddenly appearing out of the blue, like supernatural birds, to help the faithful to cherish the symbolic body of God in the form of a delicate wafer of bread under glass.
Its color is golden silver and the texture of the monstrance is vividly detailed, smooth and metallic. Although the silver is gilt, the gold has partially worn down, probably due to its vigorous cleanings over the centuries. This means that the surface is also highly reflective and bright. Silver is precious because it takes a polish so well, another reason we like it has to do with its malleability. Silver takes any form a talented silversmith imagines. Gold and silver are liturgical metals. They are highly reflective and under the candle light of mass they glisten and look esteemed. All of these metallic qualities are valuable, hence their widespread use for formal occasions in and out of the church. When the Eucharist is placed in the monstrance to be adored, it is given a position of great importance because it is housed in this beautiful metal. Here is this specially made silver and gold object surrounding the very thing that is an expression of those who have taken to the faith. It is a vehicle of faith. This is a form of devotional hardware.
It must be said that one need not be a Christian to look at and admire this brilliant object. If we didn’t comprehend the religious component of art, we would have to excise generous swathes of art history. Yes, artistic expression can thrive without religiosity and religions can be effective without their materialism, but can we exclude the attention to either art or religion when we seek to know about those who have worshipped before us? The formality of this gleaming monstrance speaks to the contrary.
 New Catholic Encyclopedia, (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2003), s.v. “Monstrance.”
 A.J. Schulte. “Ostensorium – Monstance” Sancta Missa, 2010. http://www.sanctamissa.org/en/sacristy/sacristy-sanctuary-and-altar/ostensorium-monstrance.html
December 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
What patterns do we find when we look to the past of people and things? When we look to the past of people who have lived in the margins, how do we misunderstand their stories? When we look to the past, do we ever consider the importance of things and ideas that are not human? For this paper the emphasis will be to look at the autobiographical American Indian stories of Simon J. Ortiz and Joseph Bruchac. This will be done while trying to contend with several overarching themes, theories and ideas. The attempt will be to pass the American Indian experience, in these particular examples, through modes of thought not typically used in such an endeavor. To begin with we’ll look at Walter Benjamin’s conception of history and the not so obvious problems that arise when we don’t approach history critically. Then, we’ll briefly look at a study done by Susan L. Star and Geoffrey C. Bowker that coincides with Benjamin’s history, where they suggest that residual categories are lost by the wayside in the name of strict organization. Bruno Latour and John Law’s Actor-Network Theory will be the next focus as a unique method in which to reorganize our typical perspective that accounts for non-human agency as much as it considers human agency. This will segue over to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and their innovative exploration of rhizomes, multiplicity and deterritorialisation. Before all of that, we’ll attempt to draw an outline that takes into account our popular story/narrative/stereotype about the past and present of the American Indian experience. This short paper is an uncharted map that hasn’t been drawn yet. To chart it will be a way to designate what we can know and what our limitations might be. This map will lead us not to a fixed, demarcated destination. It will lead to a series of ideas that will then lead us somewhere else—off the map.
We already know part of the story of the American Indians, but let’s review it as we remember it. Their story is an aspect of our American history. It is our story too. Looking back, our memory tells us that the Europeans travelled to the New World to find a new way of life. They were sometimes running from their oppressors in Europe, and once over here, they could invent another way of living. Often they were running away from the people who were telling them how to live their lives. We know that life was hard for these brave colonizing people, the Spaniards, the British, the Dutch, the French, the Germans and the many others. Before this, life was also going along with the pre-colonial hardships for the natives, the Indians, yet with the onset of the Europeans, their sufferings grew exponentially, disease, injustice, war and hatred all coalesced into what we are taught. The Indians were treated unfairly, their land was stripped from them and they were forced into newly oppressive ways of living, thinking and being. The Indians were not Christian and they were not white. Nothing would be the same and nothing can be reversed—the damage has already been done. The regrettable assimilation took some time. Their descendants tell their history, their stories, their myths and legends against the backdrop of the white man’s engulfing narrative. They too are history’s children. In fact, this narrative is a way their stories are told. Everything after this has to take these things into consideration. It is how we understand the American Indian stories now and that past that is gone.
Before we dive headlong into an analysis of American Indian narratives, we should clarify that the above mentioned way of looking at how the stories are understood and mediated, is through our western eyes, our American/Eurocentric perspective. This doesn’t mean, however, that Europeans (and by extension Americans) have always repeated the same tired patterns that got us so confused in the first place. The Europeans we’ll turn for answers in this paper are avid and often subtle critics of the way things are, the way things were, how things have been portrayed, how history has been told, and how to see things from another vantage. For these thinkers, it has been to their benefit to be on the inside of western culture in order to critique it from the outside. We, no matter what ethnicity, need to caution against continuing to make the same hegemonic mistakes of any so-called oppressors, past and present.
The most obvious place to turn our attention, before ANT and the rhizome, is to question the way we understand history, the way history has been told and by whom. The German philosopher, critic, and historian Walter Benjamin is someone to turn to for a unique view of history, particularly with one of his last essays “On the Concept of History” (also known as “Theses on the Philosophy of History”). It’s important to know that this was written around the time Benjamin was fleeing Nazi Germany during World War II, ending up in Spain only to commit suicide in 1940, oddly, same year the essay was written. This is not a random point because it directs us to the notion that Benjamin was critical of the status quo. Historical ideology needs to be called into question directly or indirectly. When we accept things as they are, we suffer for our acquiescence as well. Benjamin was critical of a view of history as truth simply waiting to be discovered. The British sociologist Graeme Gilloch, in his book Walter Benjamin, writes that for Benjamin’s way of thinking about history “…the image of the past becomes a source of, and focus for, contemporary struggle and conflict. What has been is always open to (mis)appropriation and erasure” (225). This is amplified in Benjamin’s essay when he underscores the idea that a history of the vanquished is told by the victors “…not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious” (¶ 6). And later, Benjamin continues with the idea that history is a story told by the victors “the spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage” (¶ 7). With any American Indian narrative things are lost, people are forgotten and an Indian’s history is spoken of with condescending pity. Yes, the Europeans took the land, but they can’t exactly give it back either. If blatant misunderstanding thwarts our view of the present moment, then how can we ever imagine the same problems cannot cloud our view of the past, recent and distant? There are plenty of things in the past we’ll never have the ability to summon up. Gilloch quotes Benjamin as saying “the task of history is to grasp the tradition of the oppressed” (226). The trickery of the oppressor always sounds correct under the guise of rational/national progress and in the name of doing good for the sake of others who are less able to so for themselves. However, when doing well entails a dogged insistence on cultural assimilation at any cost, who loses? We often make the careless mistake to demonize people who enforce cultural assimilation, while at the same time stubbornly insisting that everyone follow our line of thinking and if they don’t then they’re in need of improvement because we know better. ‘They are bad, we know better.’ Little do we know, that yes, this sounds innocent, yet if allowed to persist unchecked, it leads to overt oppression and the obliteration of contrary ideas. These long lasting paradigms, unbeknownst to us, are under the surface. To this, Benjamin insists that “The subject of historical cognition is the battling oppressed class itself” (¶ 12). The battling oppressed need to make their voices heard to tell their histories from beyond the blur of stereotypes, myths and rumors. As Gilloch shows, Benjamin’s way of telling history is focused, to a certain degree, fragmentary, which means that a defeated history will “…be only represented as fragments, debris and detritus” (227). This means that in our view of the American Indian context, we can see that there has already been plenty of loss, and this loss cannot be entirely recovered, even with a history that arrogantly aims to be complete. This pattern of history is not what we readily recognize, since we continually want to recover all that has been lost in the mire of nationalism and hatred.
In a 2007 paper by Susan L. Star and Geoffrey C. Bowker, “Enacting Silence: Residual Categories as a Challenge for Ethics, Information Systems and Communication” the emphasis is on showing that in this day and age certain things fall beyond typical categories that are too difficult to classify into neat classifications, resulting in being overlooked, forgotten, or rejected. This idea that we often have a tough time accounting for that which we cannot account for, is similar to Benjamin’s way of doing history, Star and Bowker write “A system without the possibility to understand the history and sociology of its residual categories desiccates stories it already labels ‘unknowable’” (274). The history, people and language that fall outside the normal is easily passed over, thus challenging the normative ways we mis-categorize and ignore what we don’t understand. Even when we dare to think of the English language that American Indian history is usually related as the white man’s lingua-franca, we forget that things are easily lost in the gloss of retelling—in another language. The pattern is now less of a homogeneous past, instead, it is heterogeneous, it becomes tough for us to recognize, and it doesn’t fit all our biased traditions. This heterogeneity will be looked at in more detail later when we compare it to an American Indian narrative to Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and to the rhizome.
Simon Ortiz is an American Indian from the Acoma Pueblo tribe located in New Mexico. He spoke his native Acoma as a child. His story is found in a collection of biographical sketches of various American Indians included in the book I Tell You Now. His autobiographical essay titled “The Language We Know” tells a familiar yet personal story. He opens by giving the reader insight into his relationship with language, how he loves it and how it caused him pain. Ortiz does the difficult job of expressing that he had a love for his native language, while at the same time expressing that he doesn’t speak it much “I had come to know English through forceful acculturation” then, he writes “significantly, it was the Acoma language, which I don’t use enough of today, that inspired me to become a writer” (188). He outlines his history of having to go to an American Indian boarding school where English was the rule, with no room allowed for his culture and, of course, no room allowed for his language. Ortiz addresses this unilateral theme “…I felt an unspoken anxiety and resentment against unseen forces that determined our destiny to be un-Indian” (191). This is a strange and uncomfortable mix of being forced to learn one way in order to better appreciate what you originally had to begin with. It is in this fracture that we anxiously look for what has been lost that might not be found. Benjamin’s oppressive Germany suddenly resonates with how we perceive our own disfigured American past. If we think everyone needs to live life in one way, then we’re not allowing for the possibility of another way of living one’s life. We are often under the illusion that we know this now, after the fact, but do we honestly practice it in our everyday lives?
Actor-network theory (ANT) was developed sometime in the late 1980s by the social scientists Bruno Latour, John Law and Michel Callon. In a paper titled “‘The Social’ and Beyond: Introducing Actor-Network Theory.” The British archaeologist Jim S. Dolwick, is keen to illustrate a primary feature of ANT “Here [with ANT] the definition is significantly extended from humans-only to include anything and everything that might be associated together” (Dolwick, 36). This means that traditional social theory was centered on the human activity and human agency, and rarely, if ever, extended to the non-human activity and non-human agency. For ANT, agency “…is regarded not as a unique human quality or force, which act upon the world, but as an action that is shared with the world” (Dolwick, 38). Every thing, human and otherwise, becomes important when we set out to identify a network. Also, as Dolwick indicates “…ANT places more emphasis on how associations are made…” (36). ANT is less of a theory about networks and more about how networks are connected and associated. ANT, as Dolwick describes it, is also about human and non-human agency. It must be repeated that the non-human things, ideas, entities, organizations, groups, microbes, objects, things, etc. have their influence, affect, pressure, temptation, power on us as much as we have on them, and it is the fluid interconnectedness that ANT wants to bring to our attention. Dolwick underscores this further “…the focus for them [ANT and its proponents] is not on the ‘object’ (in isolation), but on the ambivalent subject-object imbroglio, defined as ‘actor-network’” (38).
We’ll look now to the French philosopher of science Bruno Latour and the British sociologist John Law to define ANT a little more specifically. For Latour an actor-network must not be confused entirely with a standard network of, say an engineering network, a telephone network, etc. As Latour indicates in his essay “a technical network in the engineer’s sense is only one the possible final and stabilized state of an actor-network” (2). So, it is not just a clean-cut technical network that has to be delineated and, as stated with Dolwick, and according to Latour, ANT “…does not limit itself to human actors but [it] extends the word actor—or actant—to non-human, non-individual entities” (2). For our application of how ANT is associated with the American Indian, Latour’s points are easy to see. For instance, with Ortiz, mentioned earlier, his network has to do with his immediate family, his family’s relationship with the land, the land as it is associated with the violence of early colonialism, the land’s inherent value, the current post-colonial concerns of reservation life, his school/s, his farm, how the English language was enforced onto to him, his stories, his parents, the U.S. Government, and all the other connections resulting from an elaborate web of associations that can be thought of as actors in his unique instance. Consider this point and in addition, consider the fact that there can be networks that extend off of all those things, apart from him, as well. When James Bruchac, who was a so-called half breed, writes about his life in “Notes of a Translator’s Son” in the same book of American Indian stories I tell You Now, he asks “do we make ourselves into what we become or is it built into our genes, into a fate spun for us by whatever shapes events?” (199), suddenly we see a possible connection in relation to ANT. It becomes a little easier to answer that it has to be both, his genes and his environment that shape his events, because we can think of events happening in his environment to be his network in action. Bruchac’s network helps create what he is and he helps create what his network is. What is fascinating about this approach is that everything Bruchac and Ortiz detail about their lives, is really an ultra-specific network and all the actors are named. The human actors are obviously named and the non-human actors are also elaborated. For example, with Bruchac’s childhood home “…it is an old house with grey shingles, built by my grandfather…” (199). Ortiz’s family of subsistence farming “…I learned to plant, hoe weeds, irrigate and cultivate corn, chili, pumpkin, beans” (189). These things form a network of relationships and associations, whether we want to call them American Indian networks, spatial networks, or even farming networks that extend way beyond Bruchac’s.
It is easy to sort though some (and only some of) the ways the non-human actors have played a part in the American Indian past, starting with the most obvious contested questions of land, territory, reservations, relocation, and language and so on. These things must be taken into account when we think of their networks, as a matter of fact, these things usually rise to the top of the way we remember the American Indians. Then we must additionally recognize that the American Indian networks can extend far away from these purely obvious things. Let’s not forget that all this also applies to us and that we are not always in control of the relationships and how we are affected by them and how they are affected by us. We are nothing if not in a network.
For another proponent of ANT John Law, in his paper “Actor-Network Theory and Material Semiotics” ANT falls under the “…disparate family of material-semiotic tools, sensibilities and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social worlds as a continually generated effect in the webs relations within which they are located” (2). In this way, the network remains open. The network doesn’t stop making new associations. As for the semiotic approach, the word actor, or actant is important. This is because ANT borrows the definition of an actant from semiotics. In Marcel Danesi’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, Media, and Communications, under the entry for “actant” we find that an actant “…is, in effect, who or what perpetuates or endures specific actions in a narrative” (5). Perhaps due to ANT’s semiotic/linguistic ties, while writing about ANT, Law touches on how translation is related to the network “to translate is to make two words equivalent. But since no two words are equivalent, translation always implies betrayal…” (6), surely, a network includes language and its translation. The way this translation operates works to clarify as much as it distorts and reconfigures. In Bruchac’s aptly titled “Notes of a Translator’s Son” he talks about his avoidance of the calling himself an ‘Indian’ and with a touch of ambivalence he accepts it, but he prefers to call himself a metis “…in English it becomes ‘Translator’s Son.’ It is not an insult, like half-breed. It means that you are able to understand the language of both sides, to help them understand each other” (203). Yes, he writes to us in English and not in his native Abenaki language, and in this, even in translation, we are limited in how much we’ll retain of his actual past. His is a voice that is aware of the limitations of language and this is part of his network—and it is heterogeneous. His network is not always recognizable. We’ve noticed it before, and in this case it is specific, it won’t always look like the predetermined categories we’ve have prescribed for it. Like us, American Indians are creative and they have already learned how to contend with the restraints of history, and so have we, but this doesn’t stop all ignorance. The network of understanding has to remain open, while paradoxically knowing that there will always be closures, obscurities, ignorance and erasures. Ominously, Law tries to sum up ANT by suggesting that “there is nowhere to hide beyond the performativity of the webs” (16). Since we can’t escape, we can at least recognize the patterns that stare at us from the past and that continue to form the future. The networked map of an American Indian past (and present) overlaps with everyone else’s, even if we think it doesn’t.
Jim Dolwick helped us to move into the connection between ANT and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s (D&G) concept of the rhizome. As Dolwick outlines, they have to make the case that the rhizome is against the arboreal (tree-like) ways of thinking and organizing (34). What this means is that Western thinking has consistently clung to the metaphor of a tree, where associations, categories, and meanings are derived from, for instance, the Tree of Knowledge and the like. The botanical metaphor of the rhizome is not like this, since a rhizome lacks the centeredness of a tree’s roots and branches. Dolwick says that the idea of the rhizome “…is depicted as a decentered system of points and lines, which can be connected in any order and without hierarchy” (34). Also, as we’ve noted over and over again, with ANT, D&G’s rhizome takes into account the non-human actors. In D&G’s celebrated book of the 1980s A Thousand Plateaus, the opening chapter takes us right into the concept of the rhizome amidst other complicated permutations of their philosophy. “Multiplicities are rhizomatic…” (8) D&G write, showing that the multiple is not the unified, or arboreal, therefore demonstrating that the rhizome is inherently multiple and multiplying. Interestingly, we find a passage about ants (the insects) “you can never get rid of ants because they form an animal rhizome that can rebound time and again after most of it [the ant colony] has been destroyed” (9). This reflects ANT’s insistence that there is nothing outside a network, and it also emphasizes the persistence of insect connectivity. D&G elaborate and try to summarize what their rhizome is “…unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to trait of the same nature…” (21). American Indians were not always linked to the Europeans, but now they are, and this rhizomatic pattern is map-able. Remember too, that since we normally come to these things from the arboreal way of thinking, everything has its source, its trace, yet with the rhizome the networks can be tough to recognize. “The rhizome is an acentered nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a general and without an organizing memory or central automation” (D&G, 21). In Bruchac’s story, he takes us through his childhood, to a slightly unrecognizable part of it “my junior year of high-school I was still the strange kid who dressed in weird clothes, had no social graces, was picked on by the other boys, scored the highest grades in English and biology, and almost failed Latin and algebra” (198). Here, if we insist on a center, we can find one, but if we don’t, we start to loose the stereotype of this man as an American Indian. His clothes are playing a part in how he’s treated, his emphasis on the different subjects in school he’s interested in, or not, becomes part of his network—another rhizome. It is only when we require that his story needs to be thought of only in one way that we start to lose what D&G wanted to show us with the rhizome. If we can’t let go of a unilateral way of seeing his past, then we’re not seeing his multiplicity and multiplicity as a D&G concept. In an online reference for the term “multiplicity” Nicholas Tampio shows that multiplicity also steers away from the arboreal because “…their [D&G's] method aims to render political thinking more nuanced and generous toward difference” (1). An American Indian story can always have a unique reading. Their story need not always be about oppression and loss.
Back in A Thousand Plateaus, D&G connect the rhizome to deterritorialisation. “Every rhizome contains line of segmentarity according to which it is stratified, territorialized, organized, signified, attributed, etc., as well as lines of deterritorialisation down which it constantly flees” (D&G, 9). This is fascinating when we are looking at the American Indian with his history with the non-human land itself, the land that was taken (now known as the United States) and the land that replaced their former territory (the reservations). The critical part of what D&G imply is that when there is an established sense of territory, the possibility for that to be disrupted is contained within it, in the form of deterritorialistion. Territory contains it very undoing. Adrian Parr in The Deleuze Dictionary writes on the entry for “Deterritorialisation/Reterritorialisation” where it “…inheres in a territory as a transformative vector; hence, it is tied to the very possibility of change immanent to a given territory” (67). When Ortiz at the end of his essay talks about the continuing of oral traditions of his people, he talks about the obvious barriers “…it is amazing how much of this tradition is ingrained in our contemporary writing, considering the brutal efforts of cultural repression that was not long ago out-right U.S. policy” (194). Here we see this concept of deterritorialisation in its full effect, the process of acculturation deterritorialises the Indians to create a new territory. The Indians have had to reterritorialise their traditions in spite of the efforts to eradicate it.
As we recall any of this history, we remind ourselves of the other histories told alongside this, including our own. We, of course, know of the African Americans who were hated because they were not white, while their work was exploited. We barely remember the way the Spanish (and by extension the Mexican) history in the New World has been maligned and is now forgotten, lost and ignored. When we think of ANT and the rhizome, we should take into account that these are methods to expand our thinking, instead of always trying to narrow people and things down to one or two general stereotypes. However, this should still include the view that everything stems from one source. In other words, we still have to allow for the opposing view, because if we didn’t, we’d have to ignore the very thing that got us in here to begin with and that it is part of the network. American Indians and how their story is told, is generally obscured and misunderstood, as much as they’re never to be reduced to one singular memory since their story is our human and our non-human story—multiplied together—and then some…
Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” The Marxist Internet Archive. Trans. Dennis Redmond, 2005. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.
Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Liegh. “Enacting Silence: Residual Categories as a Challenge for Ethics, Information Systems, and Commincations.” Ethics and Information Technology. 2007. 273-280. PDF. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
Bruchac, Joseph. “Notes of a Translator’s Son.” Swann and Krupat 195-206.
Danesi, Marcel. “Actant.” Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, Media, and Communications. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print.
Dolwick, J. S. “‘The Social’ and Beyond: Introducing Actor-Network Theory. Journal of Maritime Archeology, Vol. 4. Springer Science + Business Media. 2009. 21-49. PDF. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
Gilloch, Graeme. Walter Benjamin: Critical Constellations. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002. Print.
Latour, B. “On Actor Network Theory. A Few Clarifications Plus More Than a Few Complications.” Soziale Welt, Vol. 47. 1997, 369-81. PDF. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
Law, J. “Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics.” Heterogeneities. 2007. 1-21. PDF. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
Ortiz, Simon. “The Language We Know.” Swann and Krupat 185-194.
Parr, Adrian. ed. “Deterritorialisation/Reterritorialisation.” The Deleuze Dictionary. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005. 66-69. Print.
Swann, Brian and Arnold Krupat eds. I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Authors. Lincoln, NE. University of Nebraska Press, 1987. Print.
Tampio, Nicholas. “Multiplicity.” Encyclopedia of Political Theory. 2010. SAGE Publications. PDF. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
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 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)
May 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
folkert de jong / chop chair / 2005 / styrofoam, polyurethane & silicone rubber
…this post is the long awaited 1st installment of reinaert de v.’s comments on theodor adorno’s book “aesthetic theory.” adorno’s philosophy might be perceived by some to be difficult & obscure, but reinaert de v. easily brings us to his brilliant & radical ideas with fresh eyes—indeed a way to think of art & aesthetics as ever more then we’ve normally imagined. …& yes, thanks again to reinaert de v. for this fine work. we look forward to learning more.
“In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place.”
(G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics, 1: 11)
This bold but brilliant statement by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was like a flash of lightning, its legacy, an ominous thunder that has reverberated throughout modernity ever since. In a single stroke Hegel had made it impossible for artists, thinkers, and theorists alike, to approach – or look at – art in the same way as they had done before. Whatever one might think of the statement itself, or of Hegel’s idealist argumentation underpinning it, no one can deny it has set the agenda for generations afterwards, or that art has never been quite the same since. Merely walking around any modern museum today suffices to illustrate that point. Which brings us to “Aesthetic Theory”, Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno’s (1903-1969) masterful meditation on art and society, which opens with the famous first line: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.” Clearly Adorno, like Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) before him, – whom he vociferatedagainst – took Hegel’s challenge to heart, and thereby situated himself firmly in its tradition. And how could he not? After all, the future of art was at stake and even, as we will see, that of modernity itself.
“Aesthetic Theory” (AT, University of Minnesota Press, 1997) is therefore an attempt to meet this challenge head on. For in contrast to Hegel, who simply thinks of history as a stage for Spirit’s inevitable development towards emancipation, Adorno, influenced by two World Wars and the Holocaust, does not share his optimism. Instead Adorno believes that one cannot have a healthy society without art “maintaining its earlier necessity”. Even so, he does subscribe to Hegel’s thesis that art ‘contains the seeds of its own demise’, because as he says: “the revolt of art, teleologically posited in its “attitude to objectivity” toward the historical world, has become a revolt against art: it is futile to prophesy whether art will survive it.” (AT, p.3) The reason for this, however, does not lie in the fulfillment of its historical role as a carrier of Spirit, but in the fact that art is first and foremost a product of history, and as such must have its substance in what lies outside itself: in the constellation of historical forces which at each separate moment brings art, in all its singular splendor, into being. This is why there is nothing about art itself that guarantees its continued existence, and yet it is precisely this fragility – its intrinsic transitoriness (AT, p.3) – that not only helps individualize each historic epoch, giving it its own distinct look and feel , but at the same time grants great works of art their invaluable and irreplaceable uniqueness, and thus makes art, art. Furthermore, the “revolt of art” which follows from its “attitude to objectivity”, shows that true art is not simply a passive ‘registration’ of a historically conditioned state of affairs, but rather a conscious reaction to (or even rebellion against) it. Art, in this way, signifies both society’s capacity for self-awareness as well as its sense of direction and development, and thereby not only mirrors society, but becomes intimately and indissolubly bound up with it – sharing a common fate with it. Which means that, the worrisome ‘disconnect’ between art and society that seems to have occurred with the advent of modernity – as Hegel’s statement clearly illustrates – left society senseless, rudderless and ultimately defenseless, with, as we saw, devastating results for both. Because, according to Adorno, this state of malaise or disorientation, found its climactic conclusion in the unimaginable catastrophes of the 20thcentury.
This “revolt against art” therefore, points towards a reaction that aims to remedy the situation where art seeks to resist man’s tendency to transform the world into his image, i.e. to make art subservient to man’s needs  – which finds its strongest expression in idealist aesthetics (AT, p.14). Which brings me to the reason for writing this essay. I would like to argue, in line with Adorno, that it is in some way thanks to its very success – if one can use such a word in this context – that modernity has grinded to a halt: locking the subject up in itself and cutting it off from the outside world, precisely because the aim of society was to ensure man’s autonomy by releasing him from the bonds of nature. But in doing so, it has caused man to become estranged from his origins, with the result that he no longer knows how to relate to himself, his fellow man, or the world outside him – leaving him disorientated and isolated. And this development, instigated by nature itself, has led to the dire situation art now finds itself in – merely subsisting in its diminished state. At the same time, art also points towards a way out, because in its very structure it embodies that relationship with the outside which we had to sacrifice in order to attain independence from nature. Art, however, contains it in such a way that it does not require us to give up our hard won autonomy, because on a fundamental level, art is our autonomy as put into practice. And so, modernity can only be revitalized by reclaiming via art that connection which had been lost – it would be modernity, albeit in a wholly new and profound way: “artworks recall the theologumenon that in a redeemed world everything would be as it is and yet wholly other.” (AT, p.6) What art speaks of therefore is of a new engagement, but an engagement for its own sake, for the betterment of humanity – and not only for the limited purpose of self-preservation. Perhaps it is a promise art can never fully fulfill, but at least it compels us to action and to start living again.
In the next few weeks we will be taking a closer look at this alternative approach to aesthetics.
 See in this context also “The Rise of Modernity, part II”for the many similarities with Charles Baudelaire’s conception of beauty.
 ”The revolt of art [against art]” is a direct consequence of man’s growing influence and control over his environment, which led him – almost unconsciously – to transform and suffuse it in accordance with his needs and desires. A process at first abetted by art since it coincides with man’s (drive to) freedom and autonomy, as well as his artifice. But this newly arranged and artificial environment – molded into man’s image – becomes the new “objectivity” against which art has to rebel in order for it – and man – to remain free. For it is through art that man regains control and the freedom to shape himself. You could therefore say that art functions as a dialectical motor, which mirrors nature in its continued demand for change and growth – for what is dead is petrified. Another way to keep this motor running, as we will see, is that art never fully matches up with our idea of nature – nor does nature for that matter.