[-empyre-] some thoughts on complicity

Gerry Coulter gcoulter at ubishops.ca
Mon Jan 11 08:48:32 EST 2010


We are no longer in a place where critical theory makes sense.

What we can do now is forge radical approaches. Theory as challenge.

Art that operates as challenge participates in this.

Re: "Politics is change..." Politics is sick. Art has to stay well clear of it or it dies rapidly.

As for Marx: Capitalism never had a better friend.

best Gerry

From: empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au [empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au] On Behalf Of Johanna Drucker [drucker at gseis.ucla.edu]
Sent: January 10, 2010 2:44 PM
To: soft_skinned_space
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] some thoughts on complicity


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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