[-empyre-] the pharmakon in the mountains

Christina McPhee christina at christinamcphee.net
Wed Dec 17 18:09:10 EST 2008

Kevin has raised a fascinating point here-- how easily comes the  
subjective reverie under the guise of a 'healing' transformation.

> Is my Rocky Mountain High a poison to me as well, a changing agent
> within me, that I exist in those spaces as someone who benefits from
> genocide? I think so. But it's hard to get my modern mind around - I
> fall so easily into displacing the evil done by attending to my own
> positive or negative transformation.
> Kevin Hamilton

and his ironic smile can be seen turning up at the edges of his  
wonderfully tart, deadpan images:


with, beneath the image, a quote in very proper undertaker-style  
capitals, from First Corinthians:

'...oh Death, Where is Thy Sting?"

For some time now whenever I"ve come across Joseph Beuy's extravagant  
debris I 've wondered, was he serious?  was he deadpan and tart like
Kevin or is he really imagining himself some kind of faith healer?  or  
something, pharmakonian-chameloning, 'tweening between frames 55 and  
166  as it were, a bit of a slip?

So was very happy tonight when E-flux Journal  hit my inbox tonight,   
with a new trenchant essay by Jan Verwoert . who deftly brings into  
play a related set of questions about
''healing" and genocide-- , even,  a flip/ of perpetrator and victim,  
in the work of Joseph Beuys, possibly the most notorious practitioner  
of artist-as-shaman in the post war period..   The full article is  
here: http://e-flux.com/journal/view/12

Just for a moment  we see with what ease  the proximity of possible  
redemption slides into a mess (is the road to hell paved with  
Patagonia?)   To quote Kevin Hamilton again:

> We can look, for example, to the function of the Colorado Rockies as a
> pharmakon for white Americans, seeking a pastoral remedy from their
> urban/suburban lives.
> As a modern skeptic, I can divide the poison from the remedy, and see
> how what heals me there in my fancy hiking boots is what kills the
> place and the people displaced by white settlement. I'm racist without
> meaning to be - sounds like the definition of white guilt.
> But what if that's too subjective for the pharmakon? Can I look at how
> what's healing me is also a poison to me, in addition to looking at it
> as a poison to someone else?

There's this strange event Joseph Beuys staged, "I Like America and It  
Likes Me"  in which he moved into a gallery in New York with a coyote  
for awhile, claiming to be 'both sufferer and healer":  Jan writes:

> In fact, he [Beuys]  continued to dwell on one particularly  
> irresolvable ambiguity at the heart of the Messianic: to the extent  
> that the Messiah of the Christian tradition redeems humanity by  
> taking its suffering upon himself, he becomes both victim and  
> savior, both sufferer and healer. It was precisely this double role  
> that Beuys took on in the performance I Like America and America  
> Likes Me of 1974. The performance began (if the reports are to be  
> believed) with Beuys being picked up at the airport in New York by  
> an ambulance and transported to the René Block Gallery. There he  
> spent three days with a coyote and, wrapped in a felt blanket and  
> holding a walking stick upside down like a shepherd’s crook, played  
> the shamanistic healer and messianic shepherd. As the patient or  
> victim of an unspecified accident, he had arranged to have himself  
> delivered to a space where he would then turn himself into the healer.
> Again, the crucial question is: who is claiming to heal whom of what  
> (and by virtue of what authority)? Since patient and healer are the  
> same person, one obvious way to understand the performance is as an  
> attempt at self-healing. In this sense, Kuspit’s interpretation of  
> Beuys trying, as a German, to heal German culture by tapping  
> mythical sources of energy (represented here by the coyote) would  
> seem justified. However, the highly problematic question that this  
> interpretation leaves unanswered is: by what right does this German  
> claim to be not only healer, but also patient and sufferer (if not  
> even victim)? Victim of whom? Why would a German—in the historical  
> wake of Germany’s responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust and  
> its instigation of two world wars—ever be entitled to play that role  
> on an international stage? Beuys’ statements on the performance are  
> no help: “I believe I made contact with the psychological trauma  
> point of the United States’ energy constellation: the whole American  
> trauma with the Indian, the Red Man.”11 (The symptoms of the  
> American trauma, according to Beuys, manifest themselves in the  
> alienated culture of capitalism, represented in the performance by  
> issues of The Wall Street Journal spread out on the floor on which,  
> as he recounts, the coyote urinated now and again.) Despite the  
> change of geographical context the problem with this scenario of  
> trauma and healing remains the same. By interpreting the trauma of  
> the genocide committed against the Native American population as a  
> trauma for the modern United States caused by this genocide, Beuys  
> essentially declares perpetrators to be victims. In this picture,  
> the supposedly painful alienation of the United States from its  
> roots is given the same status as the suffering of the victims of  
> genocide, which fall out of the picture entirely. Though surely  
> unintentional (and nevertheless effective), murder is equated with a  
> regrettable destruction of nature. The historical victims have no  
> voice here. The coyote cannot complain.
> Almost inescapably, one feels compelled to read this constellation  
> as a parable of the German situation and the exchange of roles as  
> the expression of Beuys’ notoriously unclear position in relation to  
> the historic role and guilt of his own generation. Benjamin Buchloh  
> articulated this criticism with all possible harshness. In his essay  
> “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” Buchloh in principle accused  
> Beuys of deliberately blurring the historical facts by mythologizing  
> the concepts of suffering and healing, thus of avoiding the question  
> of responsibility.12

and the reference to Buchloh is:  Benjamin Buchloh, “Beuys: The  
Twilight of the Idol,” originally published in Artforum 18, no. 5  
(1980): 35–43; quoted here from Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy,  
ed.Gene Ray (New York: D.A.P., 2001), 199–211.

One wonders if surely the title "I Like America and It Likes Me"   
points out a trickster element-- after all the coyote is the mythic  
trickster out here in the West.   So such a statement as "I believe I  
made contact with the psychological trauma point of the United States'  
energy constellation..."  has this wild
lunatic fringe Americana quality about it (like some ham radio  
operator communicating with the Virgin Mary) and not by accident,  
no?    The "Red Man"?   It's such a zoned out comment, so out-there  
racist (like who the hell are you to make contact with the Red  
Man??!!  You gotta admire the chutzpah.


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Christina McPhee

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