Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Report from the Phantom Zone

“The modernist age, of "one way, one truth, one city," is dead and gone. The postmodernist age of "anything goes" is on the way out. Reason can take us a long way, but it has limits. Let us embrace post-postmodernism—and pray for a better name.”
-Tom Turner, City as Landscape, 1986

Some people are not interested in finding out how things work. They go through life, and it never even occurs to them to wonder how their car works or how democracy works or anything else and that’s fine for them. I love learning how things work and not for any reason. I just love learning. And I have a feeling that if you are reading this; you love learning for no specific reason as well.

One thing I am interested in learning about is how I and other people in my culture perceive their own existence. So here is a brief and severely dumbed-down history of how philosophy has developed in the West over the past 200 years and a where I think it has brought us. If you already know this history, you can skip to the end:

In the 18th century, the Western world shifted philosophy and turned away from what was perceived as the superstitions and tyranny that defined the Middle Ages. During the Enlightenment, philosophers began to believe that individuals were rational, autonomous beings who were free to shape their own world. With this change in philosophy, came the rise of modern capitalism, contemporary notions of democracy, and many other social changes that were all based in the notion that humans are free and logical beings. Enlightened thinking, with its basis in rationality, is at the core of modernism and hence modern art.

After WWII, many people, like Adorno and Horkheimer, began to argue that the Enlightenment had been a failure as exemplified by the events leading to twentieth century totalitarianism. This opened the door for philosophers like Derrida and Lyotard to argue that some of the underlying assumptions made by the Enlightenment were incorrect. They argued that individuals are not inherently free, but are actually defined by societal forces. Other people (philosophers, linguists, artists, etc.) picked up the tools of analysis that post-structuralists were using (deconstruction, etc.) and applied them to their own critiques of the Enlightenment. In the art world, we call any critique of the basic assumptions of the Enlightenment "post-modernism".

Subsequently, there are many post-modernisms (such as feminism, post-colonialism, etc.) because by definition, anyone who did not adhere to modernist beliefs fell under the group classification of “post-modernist” regardless of their stance. The one thing that seems to unite all of the critiques of Enlightened thought is a rejection of what is perceive as the Enlightenment’s perversion of reason. In other words, post-modernisms do not abandon reason entirely, but rather, they complicate Enlightened thought by questioning the scope, meaning and application of reason.

This brings us to the state of philosophy today. The current dialog lacks a coherent name, but the basic idea is that the hierarchies of modernism were dangerous and we don’t want to return to them. However, post-modernism has framed the world as nothing more than a spectacle where the viewer is immobilized and never knows what is real, and where the pursuit of meaning is pointless.

To solve this philosophical problem, Mikhail Epstein discusses “Potentiation” that moves beyond deconstruction to finally get to the original point of deconstruction, which was to dismantle structures in order to be able to better assemble new structures. Some philosophers, Raoul Eshelman in particular, are currently assembling new structures like the notion of “Performatism” where individuals perform acts knowing full well they are limited in scope, but the act is no longer a sign that creates or generates meaning - the meaning is in the act itself.

Alan Kirby describes this new philosophy of the world by demonstrating the difference between a book like “A Tale of Two Cities” and cultural product like “American Idol”. “A Tale of Two Cities” exists materially whether or not someone reads it, but “American Idol” could not exist if no one called in to vote for contestants. This cultural effect can be seen in radio call-in shows, home shopping networks, news channels that run user submitted images, etc. In this next stage of philosophy, the viewer bears the responsibility for the meaning of the moment.

Thus, in many ways, there has been a return to the core concept of the Enlightenment: the power of the individual, but with a post-modern understanding that that power has exceptional responsibility and severe limitations.

Writing in 2006, Alan Kirby goes on to point out that this new philosophy has so far produced a cultural desert, but that this new philosophy should soon be used for meaningful artistic expression.

In the last issue of Big Red, I wanted to put this “Performatism” to the test and I put together a poll of what foods people like to have provided at art openings.

To a large extent, I did not write a column at all, nor did I try to. The column required individuals to perform the column for no rational reward.
I had 208 votes, which I find impressive because I had no idea that many people read my column.

The results can be seen if you click on the poll in the last issue, but here are the top votes:

Item Votes %
Beer 20 10%
Wine in glasses 20 10%
Crackers 16 8%
Water in bottles 16 8%

For write in votes I had:

is this seriously a fucking article?
chocolate fondue fountain w/ fruit on sticks
sex, drugs and rock'n'roll

Thanks to everyone who helped write my column last issue!
I hope you thought it was interesting (especially now that you know why I was doing it) and please add to this issue’s article by leaving a note in the comment section. In fact, please actively participate in the writing of all of the Big Red articles by leaving a comment.

To the person who took the time to read last month’s column, and then took the time to participate in writing the article by choosing “Other” and then typing in “is this seriously a fucking article?”:

Yes, it is.

Goya, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" (1799)

How to vote for "American Idol"


At 3:57 PM, Blogger Eric Hancock said...

Eric's 2 cent: I think that any assesment of culture or otherwise, e.g. Performatism, Potentiation, are natural and philosophical extentions of the the Greek meaning of theory, which derives from the same source as the word theater-means a fixed observer beholding something, which denotes some sort of distance, a subject and object distantiation. All of the theories above come to their theses by assuming some kind of endpoint to a narrative of western progression-this denotes distance to me. How close can we draw ourselves to the site of meaning? No wonder it took western civilization so long to concieve Calculus? I like Deleuze and Guatiari's schizoid approach to theory. The observer becomes scattered while making the assessment. Sorry if this post sucks!

At 7:37 AM, Blogger saishman said...


Thanks for the comment.

Your post does not suck and I agree with you. I just don't know of anyone else who is really working on a new system.

Don't philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari in "Capitalism and Schizophrenia" just use Marxist approaches to theory? While they may claim that they are undermining the taxonomies of Aristotle, don't they just end-up producing new categories and hierarchies, like all Marxists do? For example, they tried to undermine the authoritarian nature of Freudian psychoanalysis by constructing Schizoanalysis. However, by virtue of the fact that they named it and it has rules, didn't they just create new authoritarian system?

If so, aren't they also creating distantiation?

Also, Archimedes actually developed calculus in about 250 BC, but his findings were literally over written in the pages of a Christian prayer book:
Science News

Thanks again!

At 4:23 PM, Blogger Eric Hancock said...

Point taken. I think this brings me back to why I wanted to develop the Witzelsucht gazette(joking disease). The authorial tone is dispersed from the get-go. If the thesis is presented as a perpetual joke, it cannot solidify into hegemony...Holy crap, they literally overwrote the Archimedes document. Power relations at it's purest. Thanks for the link!

At 10:28 AM, Blogger Ryan Nabulsi said...

"However, post-modernism has framed the world as nothing more than a spectacle where the viewer is immobilized and never knows what is real, and where the pursuit of meaning is pointless." - you

I'm not so sure about this stance on post-modernism. While I do agree that the philosophical narrative is shifting away from(?) towards something(?) or something else, I don't think I'm ready to give up on the "isms" within post-modernism.

First, "the world as nothing more than a spectacle" is a little misleading. While yes, postmodernism does situate the subject within the framework of a given system, the subject is not a powerless object, a neutral viewer. The subject can chose, can exert power, can shift narrative, can perform in accordance or in opposition to a narrative structure. The subject plays an integral role in naming the narrative.

Second, "the viewer never knows what is 'real', and where the pursuit of meaning is pointless." Even if the first part of your argument is true, the viewer's inability to discern between "real" and "unreal", the pursuit of meaning does not become pointless within a postmodern framework. Foucault's analysis of power, Delgado's work on race, or even Bazin's work on the ontology of the photograph (this might be a stretch ot place in postmodernism), shows that searching for meaning in a meaningless system unlocks and exposes hidden assumptions and frameworks.

I believe postmodernism still has some useful lessons to provide before a new dialogue can emerge.

on a side note
its hard to organize your thoughts in a comment box.


At 6:29 AM, Blogger saishman said...


I entirely see your points and 100% agree that post-modernism still has useful lessons and I would extend that to modernism as well.

The core of your first point seems to be about the way I have framed the power of the individual within post-modernism. I was attempting to set-up a dialog between the philosophers of the Enlightenment who claimed that all individuals are entirely free of external authority and post-modern thinkers who complicated that notion. If I over stepped my bounds and implied that post-modernism frames the subject as powerless, that is not what I meant. I meant say that post-modern philosophers framed the power of the individual as more limited in scope than Enlightened philosophers said it was. Foucault said in "The Subject and Power" that "power relations are rooted deep in the social nexus". I agree with you that post-modernism allows the subject power, but that power is extremely limited in scope because of the framework of social structures; at least relative to the Enlightened belief that all individuals are completely autonomous.

Your second point opens up a can of nihilistic worms! (Baudrillard himself called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch.) I definitely overstated the pursuit of meaning as "pointless" in a meaningless system. "Pointless" was the wrong word, I meant that post-modernism denies an individual's ability to ever to ever know an objective truth. So I should have said "where the pursuit of meaning is endless and never has a definitive conclusion." I realize now that I fell into my own trap! Some people believe that engaging in a pursuit that by definition has no definitive/objective conclusion is pointless, but you are right, that is simply not true.

I hope that addresses your two points.

Your last point about the comment section is also right.

We should set-up a joint blog ...


At 12:25 PM, Blogger Ryan said...

I'm thinking, for issues class, we should set up a blog of "issues"? Where we can just discuss back and forth. My friends set up a site like that, But it's too wide. focusing on one subset of issues, "contemporary issues in photography" would work better.

Maybe get some other schools and classes involved ?


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