be careful with your head
-sign on an escalator in Nanshan
mind the gap
a little heart
with your head
that is all
(from a dim sum of the day before. Ink Brush Press, 2010)
be careful with your head
-sign on an escalator in Nanshan
mind the gap
a little heart
with your head
that is all
(from a dim sum of the day before. Ink Brush Press, 2010)
words are moving
sure as sound
you and me
none of that
1. First, a modest proposal. If we choose to name and claim an “age” or an “era” by calling it “ours,” let’s agree not to name it after the chief executive of one place among many places marked by boundaries that can be (and almost always are) contested. Naming “our” age for the chief executive of a place among places attributes more importance to the executive, our punctuations of time, and the temporary barriers we erect around territories we occupy (or in which we make scenes by pitching our tents) more authority than they merit. The barriers, the punctuations, and the executives are undoubtedly significant and have real impact on human beings and other living things (and social scientists spend a good deal of time identifying them and cataloging their effects while the people whose lives they impact spend a good deal of time struggling against them). But they are all made things (products, to a large extent, of language) that can be unmade (at least in part by language). It is unwise to feed the fire of a person who thinks himself or herself in charge in a place s/he thinks the center of the universe. That is to say that naming (or accepting the naming of) a place “the center” and designating a person as being in charge of the place moves the person to the center and gives him or her significant (in some cases, virtually unlimited) power.
2. If we choose to name and claim an “age” or an “era” by calling it “ours,” why not name it όχι and dedicate ourselves to making a world – personal and political – in which “no” means no?
3. This embraces elections as pivots on which ages may turn, but it also turns our attention first to an election in a part of the world (Greece, 2015) other than the United States. By extension, it very likely turns our attention to a sequence of elections that includes the so-called Brexit vote and the US presidential election in 2016 – and perhaps to the question of “election” itself. I suggest the name with Camus’ L’homme révolté in mind, both because it begins (before the beginning, in the introduction) with the uncertain frontier between “crimes of passion” and “crimes of logic” and because it begins with a definition of the human being in revolt: “Qu’est-ce qu’un homme révolté? Un homme qui dit non. Mais s’il refuse, il ne renonce pas: c’est aussi un homme qui dit oui, dès son premier mouvement.” Naming “our” age όχι identifies “us” with reference to negation that is not renunciation, and it identifies the “age” as a time and place defined by acts of negation that are not renunciations.
4. Suggesting the name, I am also mindful that 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, an invitation to scholarly debate (as indicated by Luther’s choice of language) that is often understood as a revolutionary act. This is interesting as an affirmation of the uncertain frontier between logic and passion (whether it is a matter of “crime” or not). Luther’s language is explicitly religious (hardly surprising for a professor of theology who was also a monk), as is the practice (the sale of indulgences) that he criticizes. But Luther’s invitation, like the practice he criticizes, is a matter of politics and economics as well as religion. The invitation lays the groundwork for Marx’s characterization of religion as the “aroma” of a distorted state (and that characterization could well be understood as a scholarly response to the invitation to scholarly debate). The frontier of an open-ended invitation to debate is uncertain, and that means the debate goes on.
5. The starting point is of particular interest in our age of όχι. Luther notes that the call to repentance with which the Gospel begins means that our entire life should be one of repentance. That Luther posted a set of theses in Latin as an invitation to scholarly debate suggests that he had in mind a small circle of scholars (students and teachers) at a small university in the small German city of Wittenberg. But it is also reasonable to assume that the “our” he had in mind reached beyond the small circle of scholars at the university where he taught to encompass the Christian community of Wittenberg. In the early sixteenth century in Germany, it is difficult (if not impossible) to disentangle that community from the civil community. Religion – the aroma of a distorted state – is everywhere in that state. Because the criticism is directed at a practice authorized by the Pope at least in part as a way to fund a building project in Rome, the circle is still wider. And this matter of religious practice is a matter of economics as well as political tension between the local and the global. Luther protested that he didn’t intend the theses for a large audience, but it is unlikely that he was oblivious to the potential for such an audience. And I find it difficult to believe that this was an attempt to internalize sin as has sometimes been claimed. It looks to me more like a critique of religion that is a critique of the distorted state of which religion is the aroma.
6. It turns on repentance, which is to say that it turns on turning.
7. Not the turn, the turning. This is my reading of Luther’s first thesis: we are called not just to turn but to keep on turning. And that is an affirmation of the power of negative thinking.
8. It is the no, here and now, that keeps us turning – in every here and now. The default position for citizens is resistance, and this is because our being citizens is a matter of our being political animals. It is not something that is granted to (some of) us by powers that be. It is who we are, and that defines how we always stand vis-à-vis power (which, as Foucault noted, comes from everywhere).
9. Luther’s first thesis grows directly out of what he reads as decisive (and determinative) good news. This is my reading of that news: “God’s presence is so close you can touch it now. Now, turn and act as though you believe this.” This claim (and the imperative that follows) is made in the context of an aniconic tradition that sees God by negation – so it is consistent to argue that the presence of this negative, the presence of this absence, drives our action vis-à-vis powers and principalities – which, as an earlier interpreter of that good news insisted, are what we struggle against.
and then, in medias res, I am
walking meditation on city pavement
and a proliferation of uncertain Springs.
A car heading due north pulls over to the curb and I hear
a woman’s voice say excuse me sir I need to be
going south through the open window
on the passenger side and, leaning
so I can see the speaker, I say
you need to turn around.
She says I need to get to 55th and Western
55th and Western, right? and I can see
the question is for the guy sitting
in the back seat while what has
the form of a statement is
an urgent request
for direction directed to me.
I tell her again you need to turn around
and point to 55th Street, two blocks south.
Turn right there and point again to make sure
she sees which way – and drive west. You have
quite a way to go, but it will take you to Western.
Good luck. The guy in the back seat says thanks and
she drives off and I walk away thinking
I should have told her the road would wind
through a park and cross an expressway and she
would probably think she was lost but
she shouldn’t give up hope.
But having left that unsaid,
I hope they make it. And I am again
walking meditation on city pavement.
Spring is everywhere, it seems,
since some journalist writing about Tunisia
thought to make a cipher of Prague and 1968. Here,
it comes with a stutter step and can scarcely
keep its feet when it steps over cracks
and fissures left by a long winter.
You’d think we’d take a good hard look
at what this pavement was meant to cover
before we called in a crew to smooth it over,
consider the dandelions, how they neither toil
nor reap nor for a moment think money
is speech but hold each other in the light
that slips through every crevice that follows
a change in the weather. They hold each other
in the light, and light themselves, a body of light,
they dig deep in dirt. Like water, they
turn and do what they must do to make a place
where they are standing now, a barricade
of flowers. And then
they die, sure-footed. And then
they come again, like light when
pavement breaks and yet another
Spring comes stumbling over them.
e pluribus unum: the new Parmenides
We drove straight through from Wyoming, Minnesota to New Orleans on Highway 61 – not to avoid the Interstate but because we had it in our heads that one turn after another on a slow road pausing for every signal in every small town was the only way to get to Mardi Gras.
We made our way the way the river does, rising through blue, leaving some (not all) of our shit behind. Right through the middle of the crossroad where Robert Johnson sold his soul. If that doesn’t get you ready for Lent nothing will.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Must have been around Louisiana, Missouri, before we got to Troy – six hours or so from Memphis – that we picked up a hitchhiker, scruffy kid with a guitar. He said his name was Bob. Later, after the Irish whiskey he was sipping from a flask kicked in like Pentecost, he said he was Plato’s little brother and took to speaking in tongues, mumbling about some guy named Abe and running the other way when you see god coming.
(Yes. That Plato.)
The timeline was impossible, but anyone who’s ever driven straight through from Minnesota to Mardi Gras knows what it means to be out of time, surprised by nothing, even if the odds are against knowing what it means to get happy.
He could spin a tale. And that kept us awake, a better reason to pick up a hitchhiker on a dark road than some vague idea you have that something you can do with a machine you own or a machine you think you own on loan from a bank that owns you can get a lost soul closer to wherever it is they think they’re going.
I’m telling you now, it’s hard enough to know where you’re going without worrying about some stranger, especially when you find yourself in a dark place where two roads cross in the middle of nowhere on the map with no sign you can see, wondering if Ike had the right idea after all.
The best you can do is keep on keeping on, keep your eyes on the road, and do whatever comes to mind to keep yourself awake.
Bob strummed his guitar off and on all the way to New Orleans. He’d break into a little Woody we knew now and again and then we’d sing along. It rained hard – hard rain – for a while, and while the windshield wipers were keeping time, I thought of Janis and her Mercedes, of nothing left to lose.
But she never came up, and no one was holding Bobby’s hand this time.
Bob spit out names again and again, like they left a bad taste in his mouth that the whiskey couldn’t hide:
Glaucon, Adeimantus, Potone. Glaucon, Adeimantus, Potone. Not a word about little Bertie.
Nearing Memphis, he grew suddenly lucid:
That’s why I left, you know. Tired of being Nobody. Headed west. I ran into this old cat who said he used to be in politics. He said he got fed up with the bullshit and headed west, like me. Turns out he was tired of not being Nobody, not like me.
He comes to a border crossing and while he’s fumbling for his passport, guard says I know who you are. Old cat says you and everybody else. Get in line. Guard says I’ll make you a deal. Write down everything you know about politics, and I’ll let you be on your way. Old cat says You’re putting me on. But he pulls out a notebook and jots down poems he’s been making in his head to pass time on his long march west. Nothing to do with politics. But no doubt the guard will find the politics he’s looking for written in ink and nothing to do with politics between the lines on the pages torn from that notebook.
Sure enough. Guard says that’ll do and waves the old cat through. Right then and there, that old cat decides to keep walking until he comes to a place where he can pass without a word about nothing he’s learned in politics.
I met him in Chicago, many crossings later, in a bar. Sign said Woodlawn Tap, but the locals call it Jimmy’s.
In Chicago, nothing says politics like nobody nobody knows. Coming out of nowhere as the old cat did, he found a disciple waiting where he never would have thought to look, a smart grad student who’d visited every crossing and gathered all the poems the old cat made into a system soon to be a dissertation. He was waiting for us at a table in the middle with a pitcher of Guinness. The old cat did his best to get us to do the talking. But, true to form, the disciple and the gathering crowd insisted.
Another border, another crossing – solitary, singing in the west…
There was an assistant professor at the next table (I’d know one anywhere and so would you) who’d read all the poems and been alerted that this old cat was passing through Chicago.
He was part of the crowd.
He had published a treatise on the poems, a little masterpiece of erudition, in a respected academic journal nobody read, and he laid it out for the circle of drinkers, who raised their glasses and cheered. The grad student, who had not found time to read it, made a note to cite it.
But, dazzled though they were, they still wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth. We all did.
Someone brought two more pitchers of Guinness while the crowd pulled the tables together.
Another border, another crossing – solitary, singing in the west…
If there were a one, the one would not be
many. Not many, the one
would not have parts.
Not having parts, the one
would not be whole.
A part is
a part of a whole, one
missing no part.
One whole having parts would be
many. One that is one is not
whole. One that is one
has no parts. No
parts no beginning
no middle no end no
limit no shape
another nor in
contained would be one
contained and one containing: two.
Move and you are you
here and you there, not one.
Be in the same place and the place is
another: two, you and the place you are in.
One cannot be in the same place. Not
being in the same place, one cannot be still.
Not still not in motion not other than any other. One
cannot be other than itself or another, cannot be
the same as itself, as another. Neither
here nor there, never here now then there. Not
younger than itself not older not the same never in time.
Nothing doing nothing to do. This
one can not be can not not be.
That cannot be.
If a one is, it cannot be and not have being.
So there will be one and the being that one has.
One is, not one is one. Being, one has being. If one
has being, the whole is one and the being one has: two.
Each of the two is one that has being. No part is
one. One being is a multitude, unlimited. Say
one, say being, one being, a pair –
then there are two of us –
do tell. Each is
together another: three.
If there are two, two times
must be, two times three
and three times
three and on
if there is one
there must be number.
If there is number
there must be many.
If there are many,
every one of the many
must be one. And not
being one, the one is many.
The parts of the one
are parts of a whole, Being
a whole, the one takes shape.
A whole cannot be
without beginning and
middle and end and the middle
can be nothing but what is the same
distance from beginning and end and so
the one having shape will be
in itself and in another.
If the whole were nowhere,
it would not be. Because it is
not in itself, it must be in
something else. As a whole,
the one is in something else. As
all the parts, it is in itself.
It is in itself and in another. Being
in itself and in another, it is
at rest and in motion.
Itself not itself,
others not others.
If there is no one,
there is nothing.
Chicago was not the place.
I continued west with the old cat until we parted company somewhere in Iowa. When I left him, he was in deep discussion with a farmer who’d gone to Oxford thinking he’d pursue an academic career. But now all he really cared about was horses.
The last thing I heard the old cat say was a white horse is not a horse. It is a white horse.
Laissez les bons temps rouler.
from mind the gaps: fragments. Chicago, 2014.
Don Ihde maps language as a process that begins in sound and moves through music to spoken and written word to silence. Sonically, we first encounter language as music and arrive gradually at word; through word, we arrive gradually at silence. Visually, we arrive by the same route at emptiness. Rather than beginning with silence and filling it with sound – or beginning with an empty page and filling it with writing, we begin with a world that is full and press toward emptying it. In a world of words to the end of it, we make our way toward silence through sound.
In its subtle rejoinder to Adorno, for whom music, though like language, is not language, Ihde’s sketch proposes a relationship between word and music, word and silence, in which there is no outside for human being vis-a-vis language: we may speak or write of language as though from outside; but in so doing we speak or write in language. If we try to step out, language comes with us.
This turns on pressing from music through word toward silence, which, following Paul Friedrich, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Blake, I associate with imagination. Imagination plays through word in two directions, from music toward silence and from silence toward music. The play is a tension that, as in Peirce’s explication of the sign, means a world experienced as an external force and a mind pushing back against it. More properly, what is experienced is tension between two forces. Both are internal to the tension, and neither is independent of the other: there is no experience that is not in medias res, no world that does not contain experience.
In the direction of Ihde’s analysis, children enter the world through a wall of sound, which they experience first as music. And this is the experience of anyone who is a child vis-a-vis language, regardless of age: when we encounter language we do not understand, we can hear its music long before we can decode meanings it might contain. In this direction, as we come to understand, we leave the music of the language behind and push toward a limit, silence, that is presumably opposite. But both are always present: edges give shape to centers, meaning that word emerges in interplay of music and silence.
Friedrich reminds us that poetry is language that calls attention to its own form and that all language is poetic. All language calls attention to its own form; and its form is determined by the place it occupies between music and silence. This is Stevens’s poem of the mind in the act of finding, the poem of the act of the mind. It is metaphor at work, and, as both Percy and Lakoff have argued, it invariably involves saying one thing while meaning another. Though it is saying, it is not, strictly speaking, about language. It is a cognitive function making use of language (the ultimate artifact, as Andy Clark puts it), particularly concerned with mapping. As such, it is a matter of making our way.
I am concerned with poetry as manual labor (to borrow an image from Thoreau by way of Stanley Cavell), a work of the hands that makes a space in which human being can dwell, finds a way in the process of making it.
“Finding a way in the process of making it” resonates with a number of religious traditions, including Christianity and Daoism, and is an important basis from which to consider ethics and literature, particularly poetry. As a work of the hands that makes a space in which human being can dwell, poetry is more than a “container” for ethics understood as a doctrinal system. It is more properly a locus in which ethics takes place, an ethos in its original sense as a dwelling place for animals. As the close connection between Aristotle’s ethics and his poetics (and between both and his politics) suggests, the constructive process, the praxis, of poetry is potentially a source of insight into the construction of character. More to the point, it is a construction of character that, by making a space in which human being can dwell, is the making of a city – the architectonic art, politics – within which ethics is to be understood.
In the final paragraph of her “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985/1991). Donna Haraway recapitulates two crucial arguments:
1. “The production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality, probably always, but certainly now.”
2. “…taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts.”
And, echoing a theme introduced near the beginning, she maintains that “cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.” More than a theme, this is the heart of the matter as surely as “spirit” is for Kandinsky – “an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction,” an interplay of pleasure and responsibility that dances around cyborg imagery in a maze of dualisms long deployed to keep selves, tools, and bodies straight. The dance, which Haraway calls a “political-fictional (political-scientific) analysis” (connecting science with fiction) is made possible by three crucial boundary breakdowns:
Because there is no “natural” matrix of unity (and because such unity is nothing to be desired), no construction is whole, meaning that the play of difference, the play of possibility, is endless. And that leads to a critical insight into both science and fiction, both forms of possibility thinking: “Some differences are playful; some are poles of world-historical systems of domination. ‘Epistemology’ is about knowing the difference.” With Marxist analysis in mind, Haraway follows this knowing, this science/fiction from all work to all play, from organic/industrial society to “polymorphous information system.” And that in turn leads to a critical insight into control strategies: “One should expect control strategies to concentrate on boundary conditions and interfaces, on rates of flow across boundaries – and not on the integrity of natural objects.” This is a revolutionary reconfiguration of Marxist analyses of objectification and alienation. Every construction of an object is a construction of self, and neither is fixed (no matter how hard deployers of the aforementioned dualisms try to fix them).
Like Marx, Haraway recognizes the critical role of tools, of technologies, in this construction of self in construction of object in construction of self. And, recalling that it is not a cyborg (leading like a messiah) but cyborg imagery (pointing like a finger) that makes this political-fictional-political-scientific analysis not only possible but also promising, she recognizes that “myth and tool mutually constitute each other.” Technologies (which are discourses) and discourses (which are technologies) can be partially understood as formalizations (fetishes?) or frozen moments (objects?) of fluid social interactions. But, formalized and frozen, they are also instruments for enforcing meanings. She speaks of “the translation of the world into a problem of coding.” And, as has been noted more than once in the years since Haraway wrote the first version of this manifesto (by, among others, the creators of the content management system that supports this post by “using a simple interface to abstract away low-level details”), code is poetry.
“The issue,” she writes, “is dispersion. The task is to survive in the diaspora.” And that is a matter of myth: “Releasing the play of writing is deadly serious,” a matter of life and death. Bringing Luddites and other revolutionary workers to mind, she calls upon workers and worked upon to seize the tools we need to work (and, by implication, to smash the tools that keep us from working). And that means seizing not only myth but also myth-making: “Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs.” We are makers of myth made of myth, and here as elsewhere, the boundaries we draw between ourselves and our tools are subject to revision.
Haraway describes what she was doing in the 1980s when she wrote the first version of this manifesto as a contribution to the reinvention of nature (and that is the subtitle of Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, a collection of essays that includes the 1991 revision). In a “Western” context, any reinvention of nature is at the same time a reinvention of culture – and that blurs boundaries traditionally fixed between the two. One of the most important contributions Haraway makes lies in the way she connects science with fiction (and in her recognition of science fiction as fertile ground in which to use cyborg imagery as a tool in the constructive process of reinvention) – and in the way she connects both with politics. Politics is, first and foremost, the shape and shaping of the city, the body politic. Fiction is concerned with shaping bodies of knowledge (sciences and discourses). Bodies politic, like other bodies, are transformed in potentially liberating ways (ways out of the maze of dualisms Haraway cites) by cyborg imagery, which delights in the confusion of boundaries – and, in doing so, refigures (rigid) boundaries as (fluid) interfaces. These are problems of coding, no doubt, but they are also external surfaces that simultaneously obscure and provide access to collections of code (which are bodies of text). Interfaces make it possible to use code without reading it, but Haraway uses cyborg imagery to see through this. If city is the interface of human activity with (the rest of) the world (with human activity as code and city as the surface that results when its lower levels are abstracted away), blurring the interface and reconstructing it is a political intervention that remakes the city. Haraway points to science fiction as an art (τέχνη) particularly well suited to that task.
If, as Haraway says, “the issue is dispersion” and “the task is to survive in the diaspora,” and if the “diaspora” is the “polymorphous information system” that has displaced “organic/industrial society,” survival does not consist in preserving the integrity of natural objects by attending to “essential properties” but in the play of subjects, themselves polymorphous systems within polymorphous systems. Dispersion is an “issue,” but the issue is an opportunity, a matrix in which to play rather than an obstacle to be overcome. And that makes for systems that call attention to their own form in ways that open every form to transformation – cities that are complex interfaces supporting the creation and modification of what cannot be contained by abstracting away details, multiple users working in collaborative environments marked by collisions, every one of which is a crossroad.
The devil, they say, is in the details, where the crossroads are.
And crossroads, they say, are where deals are made.
That, as they say, is the deal.
1. If one reads Wassily Kandinsky’s Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1911) as a manifesto, the heart of the matter is spirit. The challenge is not to choose between “matter” and “spirit.” It is to go beneath the surface to the heart.
2. Kandinsky does not reject matter. He criticizes what he calls materialism for its obsession with the “how” (the body) which he says causes the artist to lose sight of the “what” – “the internal truth of art, the soul without which the body (i.e. the ‘how’) can never be healthy, whether in an individual or in a whole people.”
3. Nor does he reject “the object.” He rethinks both the subject and the object of art.
4. When he calls music “the most non-material of the arts today” and directs attention to the painter’s longing “to express his inner life,” he locates the inner life in an interplay of matter and spirit, an active engagement of subject and object. “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
5. When Kandinsky speaks of innere Notwendigkeit, he is not speaking in any simple sense of the interior of the artist. It would be more accurate to say that he is speaking of the “inner necessity” of art – not the appetite (or need) of an individual artist, but the necessity of the activity in which the artist engages the world, more nearly equivalent to qi than to hunger.
6. When Kandinsky speaks of music being “innate in man,” it seems to me that he anticipates recent research on the musical structure of human cognition. This is evident in his reference to “the position in which painting is today” – on the edge of making “art an abstraction of thought” and arriving at “purely artistic composition.” Here, composition is the act, the practice, of art – and it is cognitive.
7. He speaks specifically of “two weapons” at the disposal of painting – colour (which cannot stand alone) and form (which can stand alone “as representing an object” or “as a purely abstract limit to a space or a surface”). What it means for a limit to be “purely” abstract is not entirely clear – but, with or without imitation, it is a cognitive limit, an activity of thought. I suspect, as Piaget argued, that this begins as a concrete operation (built on sensorimotor activity) and develops toward abstract thought.
8. Kandinsky conflates form with line when he says that “in the narrow sense” it is “nothing but the separating line between surfaces of colour.” This narrow sense, he says, is its “outer” meaning. The “inner” meaning, the heart of the matter, is that “form is the outward expression of this inner meaning” (which sounds strikingly similar to the definition of a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace).
9. In his discussion of setting art free, it seems the central question is who or what is playing the soul (the strings of the piano). Taken at face value, identifying the strings of the piano as soul makes the soul a material thing. But it seems clear that soul has more to do with harmony than with the strings themselves: it is a relation constituted by things acting on one another. The relation is itself in action, a process – constant form, varying circumstances.
10. Setting art free is more than breaking bonds: “If we begin at once to break the bonds which bind us to nature, and devote ourselves purely to combination of pure colour and abstract form, we shall produce works which are mere decoration, which are suited to neckties or carpets.” That even “pure” decoration is not lifeless means that there is no outer form without inner being, suggesting that form cannot stand alone after all.
11. Harmony highlights the musical structure of cognition, including the abstraction Kandinsky seeks in art. But when Kandinsky says “even music has a grammar,” he makes a move similar to the one Adorno later makes, though he undermines this to some extent when he says it functions as a sort of dictionary. More accurate, I think, is Adorno’s assertion that, while it is not a language, music is like language. And this carries over in Kandinsky into the suggestion that we approach painting (or a painting) conversationally, as a kind of dialogue. He applies this to the spectator, but I think it applies equally well to the artist. He speaks of the spectator who is “too ready to look for a meaning in a picture – i.e., some outward connection between its various parts.” And this brings greater clarity to his criticism of materialism and what it is he objects to when he criticizes materialism: “Our materialistic age has produced a type of spectator or ‘connoisseur,’ who is not content to put himself opposite a picture and let it say its own message… His eye does not probe the outer expression to arrive at the inner meaning.” Obsessed with the outer, the spectator fails to discern the inner. He or she dances on the surface rather than getting to the heart of the matter. But in a conversation with an interesting person, getting to the heart of the matter is the main thing: “We do not bother about the words [the person] uses, nor the spelling of those words, nor the breath necessary for speaking them, nor the movements of his tongue and lips, nor the psychological working on our brain, nor the physical sound in our ear, nor the physiological effect on our nerves. We realize that these things, though interesting and important, are not the main thing of the moment, but that the meaning and idea is what concerns us. We should have the same feeling when confronted with a work of art. When this becomes general the artist will be able to dispense with natural form and colour and speak in purely artistic language.” And, I would add, we should have the same feeling when we engage in the work of art. Note that the relationship with nature is not broken: it is restored and transformed into an ongoing conversation that involves the painting, the artist, and the spectator in dialogue in nature, which is no longer external, in the work of art.
12. When Kandinsky locates art above nature, it seems to me that he has in mind the kind of abstraction Aristotle discussed in his Physics – an “overstanding” as it were, that affords a critical perspective on the whole that is emancipatory. it is “hampered by external form,” but “as this is thrown aside, there arises as the aim of composition – construction.” The critical/constructive perspective he envisions is subtle – a “concealed construction” that “appeals less to the eye and more to the soul.” This also recalls Aristotle, for whom the soul is the form of the body, the health of which is a matter of harmony. Perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of a natural dialogue than of a dialogue in nature. It is marked by internal necessity, not necessity externally imposed.
Claes Oldenburg insists that his 1961 “I Am For…” is not a manifesto, and we have every reason to take him at his word. He sees it as poetry, specifically as an ode; and well before the final “I am,” the object of praise is clear. This is a song of the self in the spirit of Whitman (Oldenburg later cited Whitman and Ginsberg as inspirations), and that makes it quintessentially American. In 1974, he told curators at the Walker Museum in Minneapolis that “There’s a lot of literary intention in that, so many of those things are said for the sound of them, and I don’t necessarily believe all those things. But I, at some point, might believe them. … It’s the sort of thing American artists are expected to say, because they want to embrace everything and they want to honor the muse of democracy. I don’t always feel that way.” (For now, let’s set aside the fact that a statement is not disqualified from being a manifesto if its authors don’t always believe everything it contains. Being human, we never believe everything anything contains all the time; so manifestos, wisely, do not demand unwavering and consistent belief. Let’s also set aside, for now, saying what one is expected to say. Making a poem of it makes it possible to think of the “I” as the voice of “American artists” rather than the voice of the writer, which effectively stands it on its head.) The impulse to embrace everything is akin to John Cage’s “here comes everybody” (which Cage properly attributes to James Joyce, quintessentially Irish – and appropriating it as American is as American as cherry pie), though how that relates to democracy is a bit more complicated than honoring its muse.
What I find interesting about the “I am for” refrain is that it defines function as well as desire (or stance). As it turns out, the “I” of the poem is for just about every human activity – and the “I” of the poem is for art. This is an ode to the artist by the artist, effectively saying to art that “I am at your disposal” and describing every human activity as art. So the artist is, in effect, at the disposal of every thing human beings do whenever and wherever we do it.
While it may not be a manifesto, the first six repetitions of “I am for” launch statements that are sufficiently manifesto-like to account for the widespread embrace of this ode as a call to action.
1. “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than…” both calls for and circumscribes “something other.” What the “I” of the poem is for is art that is political-erotical-mystical and that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. Whether the objection is to sitting as such or to sitting in a museum is a legitimate question. (One might well ask the co-creator of a work like Spoonbridge and Cherry if art that sits on its ass outside the museum is ok.) But if art can sit on its ass, it must be an embodied being capable of action (and inaction). The question, it seems to me, is not simply about the artist and what s/he does but also about the place (and placing) of art: where does art take place? What is the significance of placing art? Not only who does it but who places it – who puts it in its place?
2. “I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art…” implies that the action or inaction of art (and therefore of the artist?) should be unselfconscious. Or, perhaps more accurately, that it should not be done as “art.” So in much the same way that art should do something other than sitting on its ass, it should do what it does as something other than art. (There is also the more problematic possibility that it should do this only until it grows up. But the old, thankfully, cannot kill the young forever.) This extends the image of art as an embodied being by making it a being capable of knowing (and naming) what it is doing. (Here again, the artist, it seems, stands in for art.) The question is about the consciousness of art and the artist: what does art know? How? Who knows what art is?
3. “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap…” both calls for an art that is everyday and characterizes what happens everyday as (mostly?) crap. The point seems to be that art should be ordinary rather than extraordinary, for the people rather than for an elite. That it “still comes out on top” seems to run counter to that call (or at least to raise the question “on top of what?”).
4. “I am for an art that imitates the human” implies that art is not human (otherwise it would be imitating itself, which, I suppose, could explain the attitude many people have toward arts such as poetry, which is sometimes suspected of endlessly imitating itself). Imitating the human may be necessarily comic or necessarily violent. Note, though, that neither “comic” nor “violent” applies to art itself but rather to the human it is called to imitate. That imitating the human means doing what is necessary is telling, whether that is comic or violent or both. (Severn Darden explored the third option – both – brilliantly in his “Oedipus” skit.)
5. “I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself…” refines #4, but it also introduces the possibility that we are now talking about more than human life. Why imitation of “the human”? Why not imitate nature in its manner of operation (Cage/Coomeraswamy)?
6. “I am for an artist who vanishes…” suggests that the artist disappears (or should disappear) into his/her art (presumably understood in this case as a practice, not an object). The artist disappears into what s/he does. And what s/he does (see #2) does not know it is art (though it is unclear whether the one who does it knows). That the artist “vanishes” and turns up “in a white cap painting signs or hallways” raises the question of whether the one who paints signs or hallways in a white cap (as opposed to the one who paints “art” in a studio?) is invisible. Identification of the artist with the practice of art and identification of the practice of art with being human leads to art and artist disappearing into humanity. (This is an important theme, closely related to the discussion of alienation that has developed around Marx’s “fetishism of commodities.”)
I return to Oldenburg’s “ode to possibility” because it was recently cited as an inspiration for transforming the way a gallery with which I have been connected works. A close reading, a reading through, leads me not to answers but (as I would expect) to familiar questions, not only about how galleries and museums work (or should work) but also about how art works (or should work) and about how artists work (or should work).
How galleries work (or should work) is not the same question as how museums work (or should work), though they are related questions, both concerned with the work of art as object (a work that is the product of work) and, particularly in the case of the gallery, the object of art as commodity. How artists work is influenced by (and may come to depend on) the object and how it works, and who determines how (and where and when) it works.
After reading through, I am not much closer to knowing how museums work (or should work). But I do have a sense that Oldenburg believes they should work differently because the way they work now (or in the “now” of 1961) distorts the work of art, the work of the artist, and the artist who works. (His language is less explicit than Ginsberg’s lament over minds destroyed by madness, but there is an undeniable kinship.) This distortion is not unique to art, and one of the virtues of Oldenburg’s “ode” is that it turns our attention to the work of institutions designed to contain work. That has been of particular concern to critical theorists since the late 18th century, especially in the field of political economy, which has roots that reach back to much earlier philosophical and theological discussion of vocation.
The theological roots are evident, for example, in Marx’s critical reading of religion in the 19th century, which is probably as relevant to Oldenburg’s ode as his critical reading of political economy. (Marx boils it down to two sentences, the second of which, at least in the United States, is usually quoted – or slightly misquoted – in isolation: Die Religion ist der Seufzer der bedrängten Kreatur, das Gemüt einer herzlosen Welt, wie sie der Geist geistloser Zustände ist. Sie ist das Opium des Volkes. The sigh, the heart, the soul, the opium…
The opium without the sigh, the heart, and the soul strikes me as a more radical version of Oldenburg’s art sitting on its ass in a museum. And particularly if Oldenburg is saying what “American” artists are expected to say (or were expected to say in 1961), that seems about right. (We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit, from another manifesto, written a year later in Port Huron, Michigan, comes to mind.) But, as Marx notes, the presence of opium may be an indicator of real suffering; and attending to that real suffering turns our attention to the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. (Oldenburg’s “political-erotical-mystical” gestures in this direction.)
The museum is a church, the gallery is a market. One of the great challenges for revolutionary thought since Marx has been to move beyond simply identifying these mechanisms of containment to determining what is to be done with them (and this includes the ecclesiology of writers like Leonardo Boff and the “market socialism” of writers like David Schweickart). If that is the challenge Oldenburg lays down in this ode, now more than half a century old, it is still well worth addressing.