[-empyre-] Art, Representation, Communication

Christina Spiesel christina.spiesel at yale.edu
Thu Nov 29 02:42:23 EST 2012

Dear All,

I've been enjoying the conversation on debt immensely and wanted to dip 
in more actively earlier.  Now we are at the concluding moments but what 
I have been cogitating on seems at least tangentially related to the 
current moment about the question of representing risk.  This is all 
based on the work of others. First,/Don Juan's Wager /by Francois 
Rachine. He looks at the entire field of known representations of Don 
Juan and concludes that he represents the first truly modern figure in 
literature -- and is certainly a figure of risk and perpetual 
movement/seeking the next love.  And there's David Graeber's wonderful 
book, /Debt, The First 5,000 Years/. At the end of his chapter "The Age 
of the Great Capitalist Empires" he writes:

             ...it does seem strange that capitalism feels the constant 
need to imagine, or to actually manufacture, the means of its own 
immanent extinction.....
             Perhaps the reason is because what was true in 1710 is 
still true. Presented with the prospect of its own eternity, capitalism, 
or anyway, financial capitalism--simply explodes. Because if there's no 
end to it, there's absolutely no reason not to generate credit -- that 
is, future money--infinitely. (p. 360)

Brian Rotman in /Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero/ brings 
together three more or less simultaneous intellectual moves in the 
western Renaissance: Perspective, which contributes the vanishing point 
in infinite distance (compare Titian's/Rape of Europa/ to Reubens' 
painting on the same theme to see the transformation in space), the 
adoption of 0 from Arabic mathematics which greatly expanded our ability 
to calculate, and the invention of currency which provided a single 
means of measuring value across commodities. All of these signaled and 
created enormous cultural shifts.

Finally, I throw in Marc Shell's /Art and Money/. It has wandered from 
my desk with its library so I am digging up old memory here. Shell 
likens spending money to the Christian Eucharist. (See Ann Kibbey's 
/Theory of the Image/ for more on this.) Which leads me back to this:

All of our institutions are being submitted to two single standards: the 
one standard is money=value (when it is clear from this list that there 
are still those of us around who believe that there is more than one 
source of value), the other is that which is computable=truth? or 
through Singulatarian thinking, a vision of higher intelligence that = 
god? What are we obeying and what ought we to be thinking about?  It 
does seem to me that in the pressure of change there is also opportunity 
for a new humanism to decode what is going on and to illuminate, through 
a plurality of visions, that there are other ways, other values that 
need to be protected even if the capitalist economy is the only working 
model for now.


On 11/27/2012 10:33 PM, Erin Obodiac wrote:
> /Paulina,/
> /
> /
> /I like your employment of the figures/devices/machines "ship" and 
> "tank."  I would like to add "drone" in light of the drone attacks in 
> Pakistan and the drone patrolling of the Canada/US/Mexico borders. 
>  Here's an interesting link on drone and robotic weapons:/
> /Robotic Weapons: 
> /<http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/11/27/us/ROBOT.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=ab1>
> Patty,
> For Derrida etc. the trace is always under erasure, constituted by 
> erasure, n'est-ce pas?
> best,
> Erin Obodiac
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> *From:* empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au 
> [empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au] on behalf of Maria Damon 
> [damon001 at umn.edu]
> *Sent:* Tuesday, November 27, 2012 10:31 AM
> *To:* soft_skinned_space
> *Subject:* Re: [-empyre-] Art, Representation, Communication
> I would be very interested to know if people have references to a 
> subject one could loosely call the "poetics of debt"-- a colleague and 
> I are trying to assemble a panel for a conf next year.
> On 11/26/12 11:59 PM, paulina aroch wrote:
>> _Art, Representation, Communication_
>>  For this week's discussion of risk on /empyre_soft_skinned_space/, 
>> we would like to pose some questions about the relationship between 
>> risk, representation and communication. Is it possible to 
>> aesthetically represent risk, understood either as a foreseeable and 
>> thus anticipated event or, conversely, as a more abstract, imagined 
>> scenario? And, if so, what are the potential implications and 
>> responsibilities that such a representation might bear, whether 
>> political, social, ethical, or otherwise? Insofar as risk corresponds 
>> to a future tense (something will or will not happen), and 
>> representation, by definition, adheres to a logic of 
>> "afterness"---are the terms themselves conceptually and categorically 
>> incompatible? Conversely, precisely because risk depends on imagining 
>> something that has yet to come, in what ways could we say that it 
>> always needs a system of representation to make such an imagining 
>> legible and meaningful? In other words, in what ways might risk, in 
>> order to be understood, depend on representational systems? 
>> Reciprocally, what might representation, understood as an 
>> "after-the-fact" practice bring to bear on contemporary conceptions 
>> of risk?
>> In what ways might representation serve as a constructive tool for 
>> bridging---rather than widening--- the divide between risks that 
>> remain in the sphere of potentiality and those effectively realized? 
>> Thinking of new communication and transportation technologies as the 
>> condition of possibility for neoliberalism, and communication itself 
>> as both a valued commodity and a hyper-inflated trope in today's 
>> world, what is the relation between representation and communication 
>> in art? And how is the communication/representation of risk modified 
>> by those conditions?
>> The images presented here (see attachments) gesture toward not an 
>> anticipation of an event, but rather the time of ongoing risk 
>> (revolution) and the time of aftermath (disaster). We offer readings 
>> of two different images by two different artists, operating in 
>> different mediums, cultural contexts, and geographies. The first, a 
>> photograph of graffiti images, features an intriguing arrangement of 
>> artistic responses to social protest and political turmoil in a 
>> shared space in Cairo ("Tank vs. Biker"); the second, an image from a 
>> photographic series of graffiti texts written by victims of a common 
>> natural disaster in New Orleans("Destroy this Memory").
>> *1. "Tank vs. Biker"*
>> "Tank vs. Biker" is a graffiti piece sprayed on a street of Cairo in 
>> the context of the Arab Spring; while some hold it to be anonymous, 
>> other sources attribute it to Ganzeer. I first came across the image 
>> at a lecture that another Egyptian street artist, Bahia Shehab, gave 
>> on September 22, 2012 at Cornell. Shehab showed a chronological 
>> photographic account of how this wall had been successively occupied 
>> by a series of different artists, mostly anonymous to each other yet 
>> in dialogue through the public space of this wall. The authorities 
>> also participated in the dialogue, by selectively black-spraying some 
>> of the elements that were successively incorporated into this virtual 
>> public landscape. (The image you see in attachment is at the earliest 
>> stages of the graffiti interaction, which Ganzeer inaugurated. For a 
>> video account of the wall's posterior stages see Shehab's TED lecture 
>> at http://www.ted.com/talks/bahia_shehab_a_thousand_times_no.html)
>> Shehab's account of the risks involved for graffiti artists under the 
>> present conditions in Egypt is twofold. On the one hand, there is the 
>> risk of getting caught in the act and being arrested by the police. 
>> On the other hand, there is, at least for Shehab herself, the 
>> persistent risk of publicly recognizing her art as hers, of claiming 
>> authority over the illegal action in Western public forums. The risk 
>> might be worth taking since only by acknowledging the position from 
>> where she speaks can Shehab communicate the information that concerns 
>> her and which is also a major public concern. Yet there is a second 
>> reason: authorial claim is perhaps the sine qua non for art to be 
>> able to participate in the circuits of aesthetic and economic value 
>> production in the global art market. Shehab needs to own her art if 
>> she is to make a living as an artist.
>> The catachrestic encounter between superimposed values in the same 
>> act of authorship calls for considering the question of how risk 
>> might be configured differently from the perspective of the global 
>> periphery. Furthermore, I wonder how we can understand risk from the 
>> "periphery," not only in the sense established by world-systems 
>> theory, but also in the disciplinary sense. In what ways do these 
>> graffiti artists question academic imaginations of risk? Against what 
>> kind of concept is risk being defined in the social sciences? And in 
>> the arts? What notions of stability unfold? How does stability -- as 
>> a condition of understanding or as a desire -- mark the narratives of 
>> the core geographical and disciplinary areas from where risk itself 
>> is imagined?
>> Since early on risk was imagined as a thing of the sea. We can think 
>> of Gaspar Mairal's ongoing investigation into the word's first 
>> appearance in maritime insurance contracts in the Mediterranean and 
>> its dissemination in association with the overseas realities of the 
>> New World. Risk as belonging to a seascape is an image that takes a 
>> strong hold over the Elizabethan imagination: think of the role and 
>> meaning of the sea and particularly of ships in Shakespearean plays 
>> such as /The Merchant of Venice/. But if the ship is paradigmatic 
>> figure of risk for a mercantilist society whose (imagination of) 
>> wealth pivots around the colonies, what trope organizes our 
>> imagination of risk in neoliberal times? What is the paradigmatic 
>> transportation/communication technology evoking a mode of capitalist 
>> accumulation with a logic and an aesthetics entirely different from 
>> that of mercantilism? Ganzeer portrays a tank and a bicycle, 
>> represented on a one to one scale, face to face. Can we imagine the 
>> tank as the mode of transportation that is to open a new horizon for 
>> capital in the very particular ways it has done so, at the global 
>> periphery, since Santiago de Chile, 1973? In other words, is the tank 
>> to neoliberalism what the ship was to the mercantilist world? And can 
>> we think of the realistic mode of representation of this graffiti art 
>> as risking exile from the global circuits of aesthetic value 
>> production? What is the risk involved for art when its aim -- distant 
>> from both the "the means is the message" precept that characterizes 
>> modernism and the hyperinflation of the means as such that 
>> characterizes postmodernism -- seems to be simply the message?
>> Paulina Aroch p.aroch at cornell.edu <mailto:p.aroch at cornell.edu>
>> *2. "Destroy this Memory"
>> *
>> To say that Hurricane Katrina was a tremendous disaster, the effects 
>> of which are still largely unfathomable and the response to which is 
>> still largely unconscionable, is an understatement. Interestingly, it 
>> is perhaps the word "failure"---and not "risk"---that first comes to 
>> mind when remembering the devastation caused by Katrina along the 
>> Gulf Coast in August 2005. There were basic infrastructure failures 
>> resulting in the collapse of multiple floodwalls and levees 
>> surrounding New Orleans, where the greatest damage occurred, 
>> submerging over 80% of the city under water. There were rescue and 
>> response failures, state and government support failures, evacuation 
>> failures, and perhaps at the root of all these, there were systems 
>> and communication failures. In fact, few disagree that regarding 
>> communication, the Bush administration's response---both with 
>> preparations beforehand and relief efforts after the storm hit--- was 
>> unequivocally a double failure of public health and public affairs.
>> Much of the news coverage of the disaster offered images that evoked 
>> the feeling of failure as well. Many of us likely remember the 
>> dramatic scenes of the overcrowded Superdome, the mesmerizing aerial 
>> shots of the fallen levees, listless in their watery graves, or 
>> pictures of residential wreckage---uprooted trees, toppled cars, and 
>> ravaged houses. In the weeks after the hurricane, internationally 
>> acclaimed photojournalist, Richard Misrach (/Desert Cantos, Cancer 
>> Alley, Petrochemical America/) traveled to New Orleans, where he 
>> began taking photographs of Katrina's aftermath. In this process, he 
>> took "field notes" with a small point-and-shoot camera, the contents 
>> of which would later prove to contain dozens of hidden treasures that 
>> would become a project all on their own. Hundreds of the locations 
>> that he shot as a note-taking strategy for mapping both the 
>> disaster's pathways and his own photographic trajectory contained 
>> textual traces of human survival. These traces took the form of 
>> writing. Graffiti messages became testimonials indicating the number 
>> of dead or alive, phone numbers, and an array of emotional 
>> expressions: rage, fear, love, and sadness. As he developed these 
>> photos, Misrach realized that the messaging pattern shifted from 
>> practical information (i.e. names of those who had been abandoned or 
>> rescued) to larger existential questions centered on trauma, memory, 
>> and survival (i.e. "what now?"). Some victims wrote messages of faith 
>> and recovery, such as the textual inscription on the plywood scraps 
>> featured in the photograph included here, small fragments of hope 
>> among the trashed landscape. The accumulation of these graffiti 
>> messages by Misrach meant that they would become art, eventually 
>> published in a book and exhibited in museums. But many of the 
>> messages had a much simpler purpose: they were meant to inform their 
>> future readers of who had survived and who had not. As a response to 
>> a catastrophic event, these texts communicated something visceral and 
>> real that was being threatened to disappear as the floodwaters 
>> remained: "I am here."  Equally moving were those messages that 
>> indicated that no one was present (either due to death or 
>> evacuation), yet nonetheless promised a return harbored in messages 
>> of belief and solidarity: "we will rebuild."
>> If Rene Magritte's paradigmatic representation of a pipe entitled 
>> "This is not a Pipe" played, through intermediality, with 
>> representation as such, then how might we think of Misrach's project, 
>> where intermediality traces the impossible yet actual transition from 
>> representation as communication to representation as art? Does the 
>> photographic register risk the erasure of the pragmatic dimension of 
>> the primordial semiotic act in the face of trauma and, with it, the 
>> erasure of trauma itself? Does this artistic act succeed in turning 
>> trauma---understood as that which cannot be put into words---into a 
>> dialogic counterpoint? Or does it foreclose that possibility by 
>> emptying communication out of the picture, transforming the message 
>> into a referentless trace and allowing trauma, as the direct impact 
>> of the real, unmediated by the symbolic, to take over the space of 
>> representation as a whole? When natural disaster strikes the social 
>> order in the form of trauma, when risk control fails, is 
>> communication itself at risk of erasure?
>>  Patty Keller pkeller at cornell.edu <mailto:pkeller at cornell.edu>
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