[-empyre-] some thoughts on complicity

Johanna Drucker drucker at gseis.ucla.edu
Mon Jan 11 06:44:00 EST 2010


Again, thanks all for all this rich discussion. Here's a few thoughts  
in response to the various strains introduced in the last days and  
across posts, which I've enjoyed and agreed with in many ways.

My formulation of complicity was meant to focus full force on the  
hypocrisy of critical approaches that presume moral superiority to the  
objects under their examination. It was also meant as a call to  
formulate aesthetics outside of the legacy of political theory. Why?  
Because critical theory as currently practiced seems inadequate as a  
description of either the world and its workings, or the workings and  
force of artistic activity. Almost all aesthetic theory today is  
premised on the idea that it is necessarily political theory. Why?  
Separating aesthetics from politics is not meant to annihilate either,  
but to demonstrate the distinction of the two domains.

Politics is change, the transformation of the structures, instruments,  
means, and relations of power.
Aesthetics is the form of knowledge specific to perception.
Metaphysics is the realm of ideas  beyond physics. Most quantum  
physicists would not call themselves metaphysicans, but would have  
been labelled so by earlier generations for whom "the mysterious  
influence of objects at a distance" would have seemed like magic.  
Metaphysics, I think, can be understood without the Cartesian  
opposition between mind and body. All thought, expression, experience  
are embodied, as per Ken Knoebel's wonderful formulation of  
"continuous materiality." But there are orders of experience outside  
of individual perception that have yet to become apprehensible -- we  
don't see heat, and we also don't see systems-based dynamics in our  
own lives. We see entities, not events, we grasp objects, not their  
codependent emergence from dynamic conditions. Metaphysics can be  
understood as the "beyond" of classical (mechanical) physics, rather  
than as a spiritual discipline, and thus a rubric under which to  
examine what we do not yet know, pushing past habits of thought and  
limits of perception and cognition. Is there a virtue to this? A  
value? Should there be? Need there be?

Of course. The world is broken and needs fixing. "The point is to  
change it," Marx said, giving political philosophy a different charge  
and responsibility than other philosophy. Secular salvation is the  
legacy of marxism. Utopianisms are attempts to create paradise on  
earth. A good goal. Why not? Imagine a world in which standards of  
living and quality of life are just, fair, equitable, and, today's  
buzz-meme, sustainable. Art activity would be the ongoing hum of  
creative and imaginative life, interventions in and creations of the  
symbolic, even as the happy bodies serving as theater to such  
aesthetic events were content in the well-being of their chop-wood- 
carry-water integration of physical and intellectual labor. Art would  
be about pleasure, amusement, engagement, the joys of individual and  
communal dialogue (recent research shows conversation produces the  
same physiological effect as other intimate pleasures). But we aren't  
there yet. So we struggle.

  Artistic work gives form and expression to ideas, however ephemeral  
that expression is (performance, utterance, trace, or monumental  
work). The great gift of conceptualism was pointing out that these two  
-- idea and expression -- can be conceived independently, as a kind of  
thought experiment, though of course the very act of thinking,  
speaking, describing is material. I like work that is both well- 
thought and well-made (that is, where production values and conception  
values have an interesting relation). Value judgments are silly, in  
many ways, but as a dear friend and critic I know said, life is short,  
and what you want from critics is to point you to the things that are  
interesting because they are not always easy to find in the mass of  
other stuff.

These are somewhat random thoughts, but I wanted to clarify that for  
me, at least, the exposure of complicity is not a call to complacency,  
or to abandonment of ideals, activism, pacifism, judgment, or  
indulgence--just a call to the end of careerism masquerading as  
politics, smugness pretending to be critique, opportunism acting in  
the of something else, etc. Can we be subversive? Can artworks  
introduce ideas, social change, political impulses, spiritual  
epiphany, etc. etc. Yes and no. The moving target of awareness-- 
individual, cultural, social--is another well-recognized phenomenon.  
The Theory Death of the Avant-Garde, Paul Mann (not to be confused  
with Paul de Man). As to elite critics making their careers by  
annointing artists for supposedly "subverting" the very system on  
which they depend for their own success.... I remain silent, my tongue  
bitten hard between my teeth. Somewhere between the Scylla of  
condemning mass culture for its numbness and the Charybdis of  
condemning esoteric thought for its elitism lies a path of aesthetic  
innovation, imagination, and delightenment.


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