Jan 24, 2009

The theory tickle


Critical theory used to not be my thing. When I first arrived at art school in 2003, I had zero exposure to critical theory. My background is in science, and scientists on the whole don't read Derrida. Someone once told me that a German philosopher referred to the French school as Derridada and Lecancan. I laughed heartily - an apt description!

I recently read Postmodernism Disrobed, a review by Richard Dawkins of Intellectual Impostures by Sokal and Bricmont, and realized I may have changed camps. I found myself disagreeing with Dawkins.

Dawkins aims to debunk postmodernism, and the thing he latches onto is communication style. Dawkins writes:

Suppose you are an intellectual imposter with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarify would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:

"We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machanic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously." (Felix Guattari)

Later he writes:

No doubt there exist thoughts so profound that most of us will not understand the language in which they are expressed. And no doubt there is also language designed to be unintelligible in order to conceal an absence of honest thought. But how are we to tell the difference? What if it really takes an expert eye to detect whether the emperor has clothes.

The core of Dawkin's critique is that theory writers use overly-complex language to express their ideas, and misuse scientific terms in ways that make no sense in science. Dawkins argues that critical theory texts should adopt the same metrics of logic, comprehensibility and lucidity as science.

Given that Dawkins wishes to be an advocate for logic and reason, his own heavy reliance on rhetoric does not set a good example. He is surprisingly quick to adopt ad-hominem attacks and juicy language, using words and phrases like the following to try to characterize his subject:

  • ridiculous
  • fashionable
  • daffy absurdity
  • intellectual imposters with nothing to say
  • vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans
  • po-faced, solemn and pretentious
  • their writings are so stupefyingly boring
  • a useful tool for bamboozling readers
  • the author of this stuff is a fake

When I first started reading critical theory, I had many of the same kinds of irritations and kneejerk responses as Dawkins. "This stuff is just nonsense!" I told my friends.

I also knew that many in the art world respect writers like Deleuze. Why is this? As a scientist I decided to approach the question empirically. I began a theory reading group with a group of friends. For a year we read a paper a week, meeting every other week to discuss. We called the group Remediality, because it sounded like "remedial," as in remedial studies. The title also contained "media", which suited our focus on media theory. Mostly, though, we made the word up, which goes with the territory.

I discovered that members of the group had very diverse responses to the same article. Some, like me, were theory skeptics. We were quick to point out any passage we thought made no sense. Others were theory agnostic, inquisitive without being dismissive. And a few were theory fans. Kate is in the latter camp. She has a lot of experience reading theory. Once when I said "this makes no sense" Kate responded "yes, but it does give me that sensation in the pit of my stomach." She explained that for her reading theory was not simply about understanding what is said. When she reads theory she gets a buzz, a sense of meaning at the periphery of what can be expressed in language. Kate commented that, after reading a good theory article, a few days later an idea would occur to her in her work, a thought she knew linked back to the theory article. For her, theory helped her think.

I should mention Kate is an extremely rational person, not easily given over to superstitious and religious feelings. So how do we analyze that sensation, her 'theory tickle' as I called it. I am sure Dawkins would dismiss it out of hand as a religious moment. But I'm not so certain. Many scientists will also admit to having had a hunch, a sense that they knew something but didn't understand how, a realization that they grasped an idea at the very edge of their comprehension, and couldn't yet put it in words. These are very human experiences. Kant, perhaps the epitome of a rational thinker, grappled with this issue too. He realized his explanation of the mind was incomplete, some things didn't fit, there had to be an exception - a special case for a human experience at the fringe of reason and feeling, where the mind thrashes against itself. He called it the Sublime.

If we accept, as Kant did, that some experiences are beyond reason, we must also accept that no amount of rational thought can explain those things. Logic will never sufficiently explain human experience. It is here that Dawkins' rational "one model fits all" approach breaks down. When your field of study involves trying to build a mathematical model of the universe, Kantian reason is appropriate. But when your field of study is human experience, there will be moments when the rationalist must admit defeat, put down the pen, and experience a moment of nonsense.

Jan 23, 2009



I was originally planning to title this post "A boring image". Not because the image above is of a mundane street scene, but because the kind of digital alteration it represents has become so commonplace it is a cliche.

Instead, I thought I'd tell a story about leaps.

At a coffee counter the other day, the young professional sitting next to me informed me sagely that he no longer trusts media. "It's all lies," he said. "All of it?" I asked. "Well, all except the National Geographic." I laughed, and spent the next fifteen minutes trying to convince him of how the yellow-bordered-one exoticizes semi-naked tribespeople. The conversation drifted to photography and photoshopping.

What has this got to do with leaps? Well, I told my coffee-friend a story about an exhibition I saw a few years back of large scale color photographs. Each photograph showed the artist leaping from an improbably high place - a treetop, a window, and so on. "Really good photoshopping," I said at the time to a bystander, using that knowing tone Keanu used in the Matrix when he said "Really good noodles." We nodded at each other.

But when many years earlier I came across Yves Klein's famous photograph, I was captivated by it. I stared at it for several minutes. Given the date (1960) and the black-and-white newspaper quality of it, I assumed it was everything it looked to be. I puzzled over what I was seeing.

Naturally, I had it all turned around. The artist of the recent color photographs turned out to be an extreme sports fan. He actually liked leaping off from high places, and had injuries to prove it. (SPOILER AHEAD) Yves Klein's much earlier photographs were, of course, a clever fake, made with a double exposure and a rather large mattress.

The way we leap has changed in the last forty years. When we see images of the unbelievable, we used to leap to an assumption of reality. Now we leap to an assumption of unreality.

I was just beginning to warm to this topic when a semi-naked tribesgirl came in and ordered two coconuts.

Jan 21, 2009

Under Pressure


I've been reading the book Under Pressure - Pictures, Subjects, and the New Spirit of Capitalism. Its my favorite kind of book because it is small enough to tuck in a pocket, good for reading on the subway. It has four essays, together with responses, which is not too daunting. Oh, and when I dropped it in the bathtub the other day (my secret is out!), it dried out nicely...

The longest essay is by Boltanski, who, with Eve Chiapello, wrote The New Spirit of Capitalism in 1999. I've read parts of their earlier book, so I was curious to see where Boltanski would go next. I haven't finished the essay yet. The first section is a good recap of ideas from the 1999 book.

A major part of the analysis concerns three shifts in capitalism, what Boltanski and Chiapello call the "three spirits of capitalism," which took place in the 1930's, 1960's and 1990's. Here is a paragraph by Boltanski discussing the shift in the 1960s:

The years 1965-1976 are marked by a very sharp rise in the level of critique against capitalism, culminating in 1968 and the following years. These critiques threaten capitalism with a significant crisis. They are far from being merely verbal and are accompanied by strikes and violence and result in a disorganization of production that lowers the quality of industrial produce and, according to some estimates, doubles salary costs. These critiques are targeted at almost all established tests upon which the legitimacy of the social order was based. The objects of critique are, (a) the tests upon which the relationship between salaries and profits and the distribution of added value are dependent; (b) the tests legitimating asymmetries in terms of power and hierarchical relations (at work, but also in the family); and (c) the tests upon which the social selection is based: in education, professional recruitment, career advancement, etc. The critique unveils that which, in these tests, transgresses justice. This unveiling consists particularly in revealing the hidden forces that feed off these tests and in unmasking the undeserved advantages benefited from by certain actors. This high level of critique alarms those responsible for the institutions of capitalism and, first and foremost, the bosses, acutely concerned with the "crisis of authority" and the "refusal to work in firms," in particular amongst the youth.

According to this model, in the 1960's, social injustices led to a rise in a critique against capitalism, which eventually produced a crisis, with workers and intellectuals going on strike and rioting. Eventually, capitalism responded to this critique, giving rise to a new spirit of capitalism which remedied issues or at least mollified critics.

Today we live the credit card dream. In America there have been relatively few recent riots or strikes. Yet in the absence of a strong external critique, capitalism is now undergoing a drastic shift, we are entering a new "spirit of capitalism". The change is not in response to a rise in a social or artistic critique, but rather it has come from within, from the mortgage and finance crisis. The media blames the current crisis on "toxic" debt, invoking a metaphor of capitalism as a body that has ingested a poison, and whose immune system is responding to internal attack.

If capitalism is capable of enormous change from within, what does this say about Boltanksi's suggestion that it responds to external critique? At first glance, we could argue that the new spirit in capitalism follows a different model from the 1960's. However, let's imagine for a moment that the economy continues a downwards spiral. We can expect civil unrest and strikes will follow, aimed at "unmasking the undeserved advantages benefited from by certain actors." Would these future actions be critique to which capitalism responds, or simply the side effect of ingested toxins? The problem is that neither answer reveals the full picture.

In fairness to Boltanski, he recognizes that capitalism and critique are mutually imbricated, that their relationship is complex. At the same time, I suspect that many who read Boltanski and Chiapelle will take their notions of social and artistic critique literally, as a kind of cause-and-effect explanation of the relationship between capitalism and critique. This narrative is appealing precisely because it suggests critique can have a direct effect.

For my part, I don't believe critique and outcome ever have an easy relationship. I look forward to seeing how Boltanski and Eve Chiapelle theorize the forth spirit of capitalism.

Jan 20, 2009

Celeste Prize 09


This just arrived in my inbox:

Celeste Prize 09

A new international contemporary art prize in which artists decide who wins the prize money!

40,000 Euro prizes in 5 prize categories: Painting, Photography & Digital Graphics, Installation & Sculpture, Video & Animation, and Live Media.

Final exhibitions and awards ceremony in Berlin, Germany, end-September 2009 at the Alte AEG Fabrik, 5 Voltastrasse.

The 46 finalist artists are chosen by a panel of international art critics: Mark Gisbourne, Adrienne Goehler, and Victoria Lu, while Live Media artists are selected by Claudio Sinatti and a panel of consultants with specific experience in audiovisual performance.

Deadline for prize entries: 30 June 2009 (launched 23 December 2008)

Celeste Prize is organised by non-profit cultural associations in Italy and Germany: Associazione Culturale L'Albero Celeste and Celeste e.V. Both associations were founded by Steven Music, who has organised similar artist-led prizes in Germany, Italy and the UK since 2004.


The Berlin jurists express some excitement about the idea of artists voting for artists in this competition:

"It is a charming idea to as it were revivify the idea of a final outcome of 'artist(s) choosing artist(s)', and is reminiscent of the traditional idea of artistic body of 'Societies of Artists', such as that which formed the Salon d'Automne of Paris, in 1906."

This reminds me of a proposal I floated at a large corporation a few years back. Once a year the company gave review scores to each employee. The scoring was conducted in closed-door meetings between managers. I proposed an alternative approach - give employees a number of "votes" they can allocate using an online form to members of the their team, and base review scores on these votes.

Voting systems offer some advantages over the horse-trading and nepotism of closed-door meetings. Of course, democratic-seeming voting system are hard to operate fairly in practice. They also favor those who are popular and good at networking. Hard workers who spend their time working solo are unlikely to do well in such a system.

In a company-wide review process, I believe voting has a place. Communication skills and networking are valued assets in a company. But in art, popularity votes miss the point. They shift the focus from the art to the social abilities of the artist.

Perhaps online art voting could be conducted "blind", i.e. with the names of the artists withheld from the website. However, even then, artists with broad social networks would simply email their friends saying "vote for entry 57." There is no easy way to address this in a public vote.

A second limitation of web voting is that viewers cannot experience the actual artwork, only a small imitation of it reproduced on their screen. This favors images which have dramatic impact when reproduced at small size. Works that rely on more subtle affective qualities will do poorly in this context.

The Celeste Prize recognizes many of these issues. The web-based vote is used to include works in the Celeste exhibition, but the shortlist of finalists for the prize money is selected by a group of "expert" panelists. This selection falls back on the traditional closed-door meetings, with the associated challenges of nepotism and horse trading ("you can have this artist if I can have that artist"). Clearly, the jurors are more likely to pick people who they already know. With Celesete, though, there in an interesting twist. The panel selects 46 finalists, and then those finalists themselves select the final winners, in a vote held at the exhibition, after they have seen the artworks. This is a good compromise.

But there is a kicker. €50 per artist! That's how much you pay if you want to submit work. That's more than twice what competitions like the John Moores prize charge, and goes beyond any definition of an "administration charge."

Poof. Any lofty claims the jurors make about being "an accessible entry without barries" go up in smoke. The jurors say "Celeste has de-formalised things and extinguished many of the stultifying aspects of traditional art prize administration." If they really believe €50 is not stultifying, they have lost touch with artists. The jurors should not be so self-congratulatory about using this form of income redistribution amongst artists already strapped for cash.

Jan 19, 2009

Critical thinking in education


Over the new year I went to a party and met Andrew, a distinguished intellectual and teacher. Our conversation turned to education.

I casually remarked that schools are good at teaching facts and figures. But, in this test-score driven system, they do a poor job teaching critical thinking.

Poppycock, responded Andrew. Critical thinking is overrated. Everyone in education says critical thinking is important. Its so easy to say, nobody would disagree with you. But it is a platitude. What does it really mean to teach critical thinking.

I took the bait. Critical thinking means knowing what an argument is, being able to break an argument into its constituent claims, then being able to analyze those claims. It means recognizing the difference between reason and rhetoric. This is what is not taught. For example, Obama in his speech in Berlin said "because of these aspirations all free people - everywhere - became citizens of Berlin." That was a powerful moment because it clearly connected to Kennedy, and his "I am a Berliner" statement. Obama was updating that concept, broadening the idea. Rather than declaring his own unity with Berlin, he was saying, we are, all of us, Berliners. The historical linkage to Kennedy is what gave his statement rhetorical force. But the statement is actually assimilationist, it erases difference. And of course it isn't true. If I turned up in Berlin and said "because of my aspirations I am a Berliner" they wouldn't hand over citizenship papers. We are so easily persuaded by things that aren't true - recognizing this requires critical thinking.

Yes. But the voters of this country didn't need classes in critical thinking to know to vote for Obama. They figured it out on their own. Thinking, yes, we need thinking. But don't applying your elitist ideals to everyone.

So what would you suggest instead. If we agree that teaching just facts and figures is not enough, what is needed?

Me? I'm just a curious bystander. I watch the world go by. I write articles. I don't need to prescribe anything.


Of course, afterwards I wanted to point out that Andrew was, himself, using the tools of critical thinking to construct an argument.

But something in his words stuck. As Obama prepares to make his inaugural address, I'm still pondering whether critical thinking is overrated.

Jan 1, 2009

Puppet Month!


Disfarmer, photo by Dan Hurlin

I love a good puppet show (and a certain puppeteer). Which means I feel fortunate to live in New York, which has a thriving adult puppet scene, with some of the best performers anywhere. January promises a crazy great lineup. If you haven't seen a puppet show recently, check one of the following out:

Jan 7 - Jan 11 Labapalooza at St Ann's Warehouse link

Jan 3 - Feb 4 Culturemart at Here Arts Center link

Jan 27 - Feb 8 Disfarmer at St Ann's Warehouse link

Feb 6 - Feb 8 Trio Molemo at Here Arts Center link

Feb 4 - Feb 10 Dark Space at Chashama link