[-empyre-] Unfolding Complicity

Christina Spiesel christina.spiesel at yale.edu
Thu Jan 7 02:29:13 EST 2010

Dear All,

It seems my self-introduction never made it onto the list. I am hoping 
that this contribution to this wonderful conversation will have a better 
outcome. Briefly, I am a visual artists who teaches a course called 
Visual Persuasion in the Law in a couple of law schools.

I have been enjoying this step into the river of conversation and feel a 
bit tossed by the waves, not having glimpsed either the shores or the 
main channel that started it. I spent eight years teaching an intensive 
writing workshop to incoming students at a liberal arts college and with 
me were many faculty who were interested in liberatory education, to 
which they gave a distinctly political twist. And I kept tussling with 
them over the issue of process, thinking that our job as teachers was to 
be tool givers not to be answer providers. Tools are ideas and 
applications, methods, means, critiques, things and ideas that you can 
do stuff with. Now after ten years with my law students, where my job is 
to train well people who are going to be public defenders and 
prosecutors, plaintiffs and defense attorney's, etc. where they -- and I 
-- have to learn both sides of the cases we do, I have a few reflections 
on the issues being raised. Just to clarify, I am there to teach Visual 
Persuasion, and the only way I know of to achieve a literacy is to do it 
-- in my course students make demonstrative evidence and digital video 
for final arguments in the context of hypothetical cases drawn from the 
breaking news. They are plunged into rhetoric, mass culture, diverse 
readings of both case facts and legal texts. They antici[pate doing what 
we do for practice for real, with all the attendant responsibility that 
comes with the exercise of worldly power.

So in list form:

    1) What is the power that we want as artists and want artists to 
have? [For me as a teacher, I can see the ways my exercise of power in 
the studio relates to their exercise of worldly power, but as an artist 
I don't have to worry about directly affecting the outcomes of other 
people's lives unless I cross over to propaganda.] I feel this power 
issue underlying some of what has been said.

    2) Making visuals that are for a targeted audience with particular 
persuasive goals in mind is very different from making art. Not that 
such visuals cannot be both creative and "artful." But they have a 
highly limited context and are not expected to be a contribution to the 
thinking/expression of the age. Among other things, they are obviously 
rhetorical. Obviously rhetorical art can be similarly narrowed, if not 
outright propaganda. What the best work my students do has in common 
with art is that they make work that is not "mere illustrations" -- that 
is, the subtle play of message bearing elements moves between the visual 
and the verbal components and doesn't get stuck just pendant, clarifying 
words. This added value of good design imports some other values. So if 
we look at the range of "information art" , why do some works strike us 
as really important and others as rather dull?

    3) My students (only some have had art training before taking this 
elective as third year law students (for the most part)) always surprise 
me with the depth of their creative responses to the assignments we give 
them  We assess them on their thinking (can't hold them responsible for 
technical finesse in this situation) and they regularly arrive at 
solutions to the rhetorical problems posed that never occurred to me, 
that are wonderful, that show a sophistication and implicit  
understanding that demonstrate that there is much more going on in their 
heads than the simple consumer-marketplace "contract" that we see 
reflected in our mass media.

    4) Complicity. Very complicated issue -- artists can only devote 
significant time to their art in a culture where there is either so much 
abundance nobody has to work too hard or where the economy permits 
divisions of labor where some people get to be artists. Only the most 
impoverished peoples of the world -- or the most devastated by trauma -- 
don't engage in some form of aesthetic behavior. So from where I sit, 
art comes for generosity, from inner necessity, the desire to "see", to 
bring various thoughts, feelings, ideas, into visibility and 
conversation (without a guarantee that anyone will answer back.) Purity 
isn't the issue --it's having enough time to "purely" develop the work. 
What do I mean by that? What lawyers and doctors have in common is that 
they have to make life altering decisions absent full information -- 
they have to engage in "best guessing" in time-limited situations. The 
case has to be settled so conflict can end. The patient has to be 
treated so that the disease won't kill them. This is in contrast to 
science and art, where the works have to be developed to completeness of 
information in the time it takes to get it, clarify it, present it, etc. 
Are science and art worthwhile? For me, yes. They both require not just 
passion for the work but dispassion in thinking critically about it 
during the process of deciding whether it's done right and finished, a 
complete statement, whatever it is.

Thank you all for rubbing on my brain in good ways!


.Johanna Drucker wrote:
> All,
> Great to read all this! I find myself nodding and wanting to underline 
> and put notes and check marks in the margins of these texts! So much 
> for the awful physical impermeability of screen space. So here are a 
> few affirmative comments and a couple more thoughts. 
> Since I find myself so much in agreement, I will only mention one or 
> two things. John's comment at the end of his last post seems really 
> important -- we really DO have to make judgments because that is part 
> of the ongoing civil project. I remember once, years ago, when I was a 
> young prof teaching contemporary art. I was a guest in public forum 
> addressing free speech issues and took the, to my mind at the time, 
> only position which was that all speech should be free and all 
> censorship avoided. A visitor from Scandinavia raised his hand and 
> said very gently that no, that was not the case, that in fact the very 
> nature of a civil society was that it was always engaged in figuring 
> out what was permissible/acceptable and what was not. That remark 
> changed my thinking in many ways, most profoundly, because it pointed 
> out the always unfinished and ongoing foundation of ethical behavior. 
> So, that is just to extend John's significant remark. 
> I originally thought of complicity as a way to complicate the 
> historical sequence of concepts that began with modern autonomy and 
> was replaced by contingency in a post-modern formulation. It was meant 
> to express much of what Cynthia put eloquently into her post -- the 
> combination of our understanding of ourselves within a 
> structuralist/poststructuralist sense of subjecthood (enunciated and 
> enuciating) but also with the recognition that pace Baudrillard et al, 
> we are still individuals with actual quirky selves and lives that 
> matter in a humanistic sense. I'm resolutely against the notion of 
> posthumanism, as I think it makes concessions to a mind set that is 
> destructive to the social values of a culture that needs to keep the 
> fictions of humanism alive -- that is, the respect for individuals 
> within the polis -- while evolving a more conscientious and 
> sophisticated understanding of community. I guess I think that for all 
> I love Luhmann's work, he seems not to be able to create a model in 
> which the somewhat contradictory conditions of system theory, 
> complexity, and autopoiesis, and humanist self-hood fictions all 
> co-exist. I see all of those things in daily life, and hear them in 
> what Cynthia and Sean are saying (though do correct me if I am 
> misreading).
> Finally, here is a story about hypocrisy and academics to make my 
> other point clear, because of course I am an academic as well as an 
> artist and love critical thought as much as any other theory-head. 
> Once, when I was teaching at Columbia, I had occasion to attend a talk 
> by a very famous architect and theorist whose name I honestly do 
> forget, though someone else will no doubt remember. He was talking 
> about the then recent renovation of Parc de la Villette in Paris. He 
> took issue with the design that had been developed-which was created 
> to make a recreational, pleasant outdoor space in a high density 
> neighborhood whose demographic was working class and at the lower end 
> of the economic scale. He suggested instead that the park should be 
> made as /unpleasant/ as possible, disagreeable, difficult to use, 
> grating on the senses because then and only then would the working 
> classes rise up and overthrow the capitalist masters. This from a 
> person whose yearly income had long since topped out the salary scale 
> at the University and who lived a life of security and relative 
> luxury. I found this appalling, but the colleague I was with told me 
> to hold my tongue because the audience was in thrall -- all thought 
> this was the most brilliant and radical talk they had heard in ages. 
> This seems to me to be a completely different thing from teaching 
> students Foucault, for instance, to give them tools for critical thought. 
> Johanna
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