Archives for the month of: May, 2013

3 stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages) 1913-14, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968
Marcel Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages is the most explicit work about the importance of chance that I’ve ever seen. It also might be the first. Duchamp dropped three one meter threads onto a prepared surface and used these lines to make his meter sticks. The following came from the Tate’s website:

In 1964 Duchamp explained: ‘This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance. At the same time, the unit of length, one meter, was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight edge as being the shortest route from one point to another.’ (Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973, pp.273-4.)

It’s interesting how Duchamp referred to the creation of a work as an imprisonment. It occurred to me once, while listening to Thelonious Monk, that sometimes making art feels like a crime. His exquisite, pauses before committing to a note can make my hair stand up. Art can be very, very serious. The artist is culpable. What’s done is done, and it can’t be taken back. When the move is made, the idea of it is no more. It’s a murder of sorts, and a museum is a morgue.

I hesitate to mention dialectics, but this is the experience of aufhebung, the dialectical move of raising up and preservation through destruction. That’s all nonsense of course, because the dialectic is about feelings, not thinking – a complicated memoir dressed as bad philosophy argued from the personal experience of “it seems like”. Notwithstanding Hegel the Reprehensible, Marx has said many perceptive things, “In no sense does the writer regard his work as a means. They are ends in themselves: so little are they means for him and others that, when necessary, he sacrifices his existence to theirs” FN 1

Art is important.

Embracing chance may seem like an evasion of responsibility, but chance is unavoidable. An artist should love fate like Nietzsche and permit art to be a premeditated arrangement that allows chance to occur. Sometimes the latitude for chance is limited to merely the chanciness of skill, but at other times it is given huge scope.

The critical moment for any work is heeding the realization that the piece might be finished. This is more difficult than I often suppose. I admire the work as it proceeds and I don’t want the pleasure of feeling so smart and talented to stop. But if I don’t coolly consider my judgements as I work, I risk irredeemably ruining it. I need to pause and look at it as an art lover, not an art maker. Maybe it’s done, and maybe it’s not. Think carefully. Not sure? Do something else and come back to it later. Ultimately, when I make the last call, and weeks later decide that it was the right decision, I get the finest pleasure: I still feel smart and talented, but now it comes with relief instead of worry.

Duchamp also mentioned pataphysics – more about that in a future post.

He also said he made it with chance, “my chance”. Perhaps a confession that he made some adjustments, or more likely, repeated the process at an appropriate height to obtain results that were apparently random, and incidentally, fit on sticks of pleasing width. I don’t see anything wrong with this. Artists are liars and keep secrets. The camera obscura is a great example. I suspect Vermeer used one, and he’s my favourite painter. I saw “Girl with Scarf” when it came to the National Gallery in Ottawa and I was stunned. There were no edges, just tiny fallings-off into infinity. David Hockney tried to out the cheats in a book. He may approve of cheating, but I’m not sure, I haven’t read the book. For his sake, I hope he does approve.

Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” makes my point, “The only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is Lying for its own sake, and the highest development of this, as we have already pointed out, is Lying in Art.” FN 2 The Decay of Lying is a delightful dialog that I highly recommend. It’s funny and true in a mendacious kind of way, although Wilde would never be so gauche as to make any claim to truth.

FN 1 Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”, in Marx and Engels on Literature and Art, L. Baxandall & S. Morawski (eds.) St. Louis: Telos Press, p. 61.

FN 2 Oscar Wilde,”The Decay of Lying” in “Intentions” in The Artist as Critic, Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, Richard Ellman (ed.) New York: Random House, 1969, p.318

IMAGE from the Tate

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nixon front
“Compressed air is a disgrace.” FN1

I have a formula for humour that consists of applying the three following rules:

1- Use reason to explain all human activity.
2- Assume everybody knows what they are doing or talking about.
3- Assume no one is ever under the thrall of the seven deadly sins.

I sincerely believe that this formula will work for anybody. Even cheats and pedants can be funny if you stick to the plan. Richard Nixon was extremely funny. This is why Nixon is my favourite President. I think Hunter S. Thompson grieved the end of his presidency, and now I miss Hunter S. Thompson.

Power is antithetical to humour. Beauty is a kind of power. But sometimes humour is beautiful, and the beautiful is funny.

IMAGE
Sometime in the 1990’s, driving in the United States of America, I stopped for lunch and noticed the bowl of sugar bags on the table. Each one had a President on it, so I rummaged around for Nixon. I saved it.

FN1 Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, “The Magnetic Fields”, The Automatic Message, David Gascoyne, Antony Melville, Jon Graham trans., Atlas Press, London, 1997, p. 140

newarch1980
Allow me to justify myself and feel validated. Yes indeed.

In the comments on my post the other day, The Elevator Speech, I said, “It’s the unexpected good result that causes the artists’ high, which, in my opinion, is way better than the runners’ high”. There’s nothing like a momentary thought that you just made something perfect. That’s a good day. You just want to do it again. And I inevitably fall for the idea that it wasn’t an unexpected good result at all, and in fact, I had cleverly planned the whole thing. It’s best to shake that before you start the next project, otherwise second rate crap is on the horizon.

I just read “A Conversation with David Foster Wallace” From The Review of Contemporary Fiction Summer 1993, Vol. 13.2, By Larry McCaffery. I follow livelysceptic, and the post Stargazing, had a comment by someone else I follow, Dyssebeia. The comment had a link to the DFW interview. That link is also at the bottom of this post as a footnote. I like footnotes.

Here’s what Mr. Wallace had to say, “But you’re talking about the click, which is something that can’t just be bequeathed from our postmodern ancestors to their descendants. No question that some of the early postmodernists and ironists and anarchists and absurdists did magnificent work, but you can’t pass the click from one generation to another like a baton. The click’s idiosyncratic, personal. The only stuff a writer can get from an artistic ancestor is a certain set of aesthetic values and beliefs, and maybe a set of formal techniques that might–just might–help the writer to chase his own click. The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment”. FN1

There are a few things to discuss here. First off, the artists’ high and the click refer to the same thing. Secondly, DFW and I seem to be in agreement about Postmodernism being unhealthy. If you’re interested, I go on about that in The Communist Manifesto without Nouns. And for more on the subject, here’s the Editorial from Wegway, issue one, 1995, back when it was a photocopied, folded and stapled zine.

EDITORIAL

Did you know that when I was a kid, I made a neighbourhood newspaper with an Underwood typewriter and carbon paper? The print run was, I think, around 5 or 6, and a couple of the copies were pretty hard to read. When I was 15, two friends and I took our life savings (I worked part-time in a public library for 90 cents an hour) and we bought a used Gestetner ditto machine. We published an ‘underground’ magazine called Karma and sold it on the streets in Yorkville (that was Toronto’s ‘Haight-Ashbury’ area in the days of Hippies). Using the same Underwood typewriter as before, I wrote concrete poetry under the pseudonym of Lenny Ankersfeldt. Now is almost 30 years later, and now is Wegway. As W. S. Burroughs says, “Isn’t life peculiar?”. But enough of maudlin wool-gathering.

I have been wondering why art has become so puny and irrelevant. It may be because art is about too many things these days. Art is so distended with content, it has de-materialized into an infinite balloon of cultural æther. Oddly, our present situation is also like the old saying, “A very tiny baby can easily get lost in its bathwater”. Obviously then, when things get either big enough, or small enough, they become invisible. It is time we learned that trying to force relevance, inevitably leads to kitsch. And it is time to remember, that if you would just stop being a wise-ass for a minute, we would all agree that kitsch is bad.

I have also been wondering why no one since Arthur Cravan has gone on record saying something tactless. Are we all filled with so much self-pity for our irrelevance, that we want to leave our pathetic little careers unthreatened? I realize that our pond is small: That is why we submit to civilization and its discontents. Perhaps that is why nobody will say something like, “David Salle’s paintings are the cloying dwarf offspring of that empty man, that thief and charlatan, Picasso”. You will notice that I also prevaricate in my saying of such a thing. I believe that this is an era of minced words because outside of our art-confinement, nobody cares. That is how unimportant art has become. Since no one else cares, we need to flatter ourselves, and show feigned support for each other although we know in our innards that we and a few others are good, while the vast majority are “salon painters” or some other fatal thing. This fawning has the additional side benefit of inducing wealthy idiots to divert some of their money to art instead of baseball cards. If we really cared, we would honestly say what we think of our peers, and we would tell the world that its money belongs in hell. If art is real, then it is serious.

The Modern world worries everybody; it is not just a problem for silly artistes. That is why the L’il Abner / Beverly Hillbillies myth is so touching. We want an Eden that has not been bothered by the Modern. That is also why the science-fiction theory of “Post Modernism” is so enticing. Jed Clampett and Post Modernism are both wish fulfilment fantasies. There is no Post Modern perception, nor is there a Post Industrial world. Our present mode of perception (assuming there is such a pretentious thing) began with the camera obscura and was confirmed for all in 1839 with the invention of photography. Dirty industry is merely sliding out of Western sight into the Third World. Beware of Marie Antoinettes of theory who rush to declare the new era of the Post Modern and the Post Industrial.

Things are the same as they ever were, only worse. It will have to get much worse yet, before there is a radical change. We are nowhere near a critical mass, and nowhere near the magical point where an epiphenomenon might pop up. Now the Modern is pervasive enough to be opaque. We cannot see outside the virtual. Everything is subsumed. Here is your challenge: Do not give up on Modernism; it is yours; take it back from the cosmetics manufacturers and the advertisers. Take Modernism back from your television set and your personal computer. Art is becoming irrelevant because artists are losing their vision. I have decided that I am not an artist: It has become a foolish thing to be. There is no dignity left in the word ‘artist’. It has become no better than ‘shopkeeper’ and ‘poseur’. I am not an artist because I am not nothing. Wake up. Fight back. Jobs, entertainment and apartments darken our souls. Throw away your television. Cancel your newspaper subscription. Dump theory. Embrace practice. In a couple of months you will begin to realize what you are in. You will begin, once again, to see the difference between double entendre and self-consciousness.

S. E. Armstrong

I greatly admire David Foster Wallace’s writing. I feel validated that we agree on some points, this in spite of the fact that he will always be the better writer. I have pencil drawings to fall back on.

FN1
http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/book/?fa=customcontent&GCOI=15647100621780&extrasfile=A09F8296-B0D0-B086-B6A350F4F59FD1F7.html

Image – Steve Armstrong, The New Architecture, an aerial perspective, graphite and coloured pencil on paper, 8″ x 10″, 1980.

sokal
Alan Sokal

The following was published in Wegway Primary Culture, issue 8, Spring 2005. I resisted the urge to edit my introduction.

Wegway8 cover

The Science Wars – Lest We Forget
by
André Questcequecest

with an introduction by Stephen Eric Armstrong

Alan Sokal, a Professor of Physics at New York University published an essay called, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the Spring/Summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue of Social Text, a leading North American journal of Culture Studies. The editorial board of this journal includes respected thinkers such as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross.

Sokal’s verbose, metaphor-driven essay was a parody and, when word of this got out, it generated a lot of controversy. In 1998, Sokal, along with Jean Bricmont published Intellectual Impostures, a book dealing with some of the issues raised by the affair.

If the publication of “Transgressing the Boundaries” were to be considered a work of art, then I believe art should consider itself flattered. André Questcequecest is thrilled by all of this. He told me once that his distinctive writing style, of never saying anything and only quoting what others have said, was inspired, in part, by his reading of Frederic Jameson and Jacques Derrida. In 1995, Questcequecest published “A Dialogue between the Pleonasmus Brothers, Obfusicus and Pomposius, concerning Approximately Art” in Wegway’s inaugural issue. It consisted of two lengthy quotes, one from Derrida’s The Truth in Painting, and the other from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The two quotes interrupted each other at appropriate intervals to produce a strange dialogue.

In spite of the fact that it is very difficult to determine the relation between ideas, and the words that refer to those ideas, or whether in fact there even are ideas that are separate in any functional way from their words, I see Questcequecest’s work as a poetry of ideas generated by the process of choosing other peoples’ words. It has touches of Duchamp, Schwitters and Ezra Pound’s “Imagism” in it; and it acknowledges the complexity of form versus content. I think it also points to the ambivalent feelings many artists have about copyright, intellectual property, commercial value and one’s sense of community within a tradition.

As Questcequecest’s First Law of Texts states, “There is an inverse relation between an author’s sense of responsibility for what a text might say and the number of references that text contains.” And as Nietzsche said somewhere, philosophical writings mostly reveal the character of their authors and perhaps not much else.

Stephen Eric Armstrong

The Science Wars – Lest We Forget

To begin, Alan Sokal said, “Thus, general relativity forces upon us radically new and counterintuitive notions of space, time and causality; so it is not surprising that it has had a profound impact not only on the natural sciences but also on philosophy, literary criticism, and the human sciences. For example, in a celebrated symposium three decades ago on Les Langages Critiques et les Sciences de l’Homme, Jean Hyppolite raised an incisive question about Jacques Derrida’s theory of structure and sign in scientific discourse … Derrida’s perceptive reply went to the heart of classical general relativity: The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability–it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something–of a center starting from which an observer could master the field–but the very concept of the game … In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation Gμv = 8πGTμv; under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the π of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.”FN1

He also said, “Social Text’s acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory – meaning postmodernist literary theory – carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn’t bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and “text,” then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and “language games,” then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.”FN2

Stanley Aronowitz stated, “Explaining his now famous parody in Social Text’s “Science Wars” issue, Alan Sokal writes in Dissent (“Afterword”, Fall 1996): But why did I do it? I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.” There is much to note in this “confession.” Why choose a hoax on Social Text to make these points? Did Sokal believe its editors were unabashed deconstructionists who doubted the existence of an external world or that they were anti-science? If so, he has either misread the burden of its seventeen-year history or was capricious in his choice. If not, then he has perpetuated the saddest hoax of all: on himself. For the fact is that Social Text, of which I am a founder and in whose editorial collective I served until this year, has never been in the deconstructionist camp; nor do its editors or the preponderance of its contributors doubt the existence of a material world. What is at issue is whether our knowledge of it can possibly be free of social and cultural presuppositions. Social Text was founded, and remains within, the Marxist project – which, as everyone knows, is profoundly materialist. When Fredric Jameson, John Brenkman, and I started the journal we gave it the subtitle “Theory, Culture, Ideology.” Our objective was to interrogate Marxists’ habitual separation of political economy and culture and to make a contribution to their articulation, even reunification. We were appalled by the orthodox Marxist claim that culture had nothing to do with burning issues of economic justice and were equally opposed to a “culturalist” deconstruction of reality in which all that mattered was language. The use of the term “ideology” in our subtitle revealed our critical intent. For us ideology was not “false consciousness” but a form of “lived experience.” This marked us decidedly as not “old leftist” because we questioned the naive old materialism that holds that knowledge simply reflects reality. We followed the contemporary Marxist view that all processes of knowledge, including science, are mediated by their practices; for us “practice” was not a mental, but a material category.”FN3

Then Alan Sokal responded, “According to Aronowitz, I think that knowledge of reality is “transparent” and I “never interrogate the nature of evidence or facts.” On what basis does he make such claims? And if I were such a simpleton, why would I have explicitly raised epistemological questions in my Afterword? But the trouble isn’t just that Aronowitz distorts my own positions; it is that much of his essay is based on setting up and demolishing straw opponents. Who nowadays claims that culture has nothing to do with economic injustice, or that funding sources have no effect on scientific work? Who denies the value of sociological and political study of science and technology, or of the philosophical analysis of epistemological problems? My point is a modest one: that such investigations need to be conducted with due intellectual rigor. The works cited in my parody article provide a plethora of examples of how not to proceed. And so, unfortunately, does Aronowitz’s essay”FN4

Bruce Robbins said, “As far more people than have ever read the journal now know, Alan Sokal’s essay in the Spring/Summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue of Social Text was a hoax. The journal’s editors thought the manuscript argued that quantum physics, properly understood, dovetails with postmodern philosophy. In fact, Sokal booby-trapped the piece with deliberate mistakes, as he later revealed; he sought to publish it to expose the various intellectual and political weaknesses in Social Text and those it represents. But which weaknesses? Even people who followed the story with some interest and amusement may still be wondering what, exactly, the hoax proved. As one of the editors of Social Text, I freely confess what I think it proved about us: that some scientific ignorance and some absent-mindedness could combine with much enthusiasm for a supposed political ally to produce a case of temporary blindness. It remains to be seen, however, whether our editorial failure is really symptomatic of a larger failure in the beliefs we hold or the movements from which we come, and if so, what it might be symptomatic of. One conclusion not to draw is that if non-scientists like us are incompetent to judge what scientists do, then only scientists can be allowed to judge it. Whatever our own failings, science should not be protected from public accountability. We cannot leave it accountable only to those funders (increasingly, private corporations) who pay the piper. Pretending that criticisms of science are invalidated by the critic’s postmodernism or poststructuralism is a convenient way for Sokal and his backers to pretend they are not defending their own exclusive rights to their turf — a turf that the public has good reason to monitor as closely as possible.”FN5

Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal said, “Julia Kristeva, writing in Le Nouvel Observateur, accuses us of spreading “disinformation” as part of an anti-French politico-economic campaign; she was even quoted (we hope misquoted) by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera as saying that we should undergo psychiatric treatment. Vincent Fleury and Yun Sun Limet, in Libération, accuse us of seeking to divert research funds from the social to the natural sciences. These defenses are curious: for even if our motivations were indeed as ascribed (and they most certainly aren’t), how would that affect the validity or invalidity of our arguments? We have the modest hope that calmer heads will soon prevail among both our supporters and our critics, so that the debate can focus on the substantive content of our book. Which is what? The book grew out of the now-famous hoax in which one of us published, in the American cultural-studies journal Social Text, a parody article chock-full of nonsensical, but unfortunately authentic, quotes about physics and mathematics by prominent French and American intellectuals. However, only a small fraction of the “dossier” discovered during Sokal’s library research could be included in the parody. After showing this larger dossier to scientist and non-scientist friends, we became (slowly) convinced that it might be worth making it available to a wider audience. We wanted to explain, in non-technical terms, why the quotes are absurd or, in many cases, simply meaningless; and we wanted also to discuss the cultural circumstances that enabled these discourses to achieve such prominence and to remain, thus far, unexposed. Hence our book, the noise and the furor. But what exactly do we claim in our book? Neither too much nor too little. We show that famous intellectuals such as Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze have repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology: either using scientific ideas totally out of context, without giving the slightest empirical or conceptual justification — note that we are not against extrapolating concepts from one field to another, but only against extrapolations made without argument — or throwing around scientific jargon to their non-scientist readers without any regard for its relevance or even its meaning. We make no claim that this invalidates the rest of their work, on which we are explicitly agnostic.”FN6

Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross said, “Why does science matter so much to us? Because its power, as a civil religion, as a social and political authority, affects our daily lives and the parlous condition of the natural world more than does any other domain of knowledge. Does it follow that non-scientists should have some say in the decision-making processes that define and shape the work of the professional scientific community? Some scientists (including Sokal presumably) would say yes, and in some countries, non-expert citizens do indeed participate in these processes. All hell breaks loose, however, when the following question is asked. Should non-experts have anything to say about scientific methodology and epistemology? After centuries of scientific racism, scientific sexism, and scientific domination of nature one might have thought this was a pertinent question to ask.”FN7

John Krige said, “Does Sokal care that his spontaneous response to those “relativists” who are puzzled about the epistemic status of a world that is always mediated by our unreliable senses, our context-laden language and our scientific instruments (he invites anyone who isn’t sure that the world exists to step out of the window of his high-rise apartment) is nothing more than a 1990s uptown New York version of an age-old common-sense reaction to a deep philosophical problem? Have Sokal and Bricmont followed the carefully crafted and empirically enriched studies of scientific practice by sociologists and historians of science over the last two decades (see Physics World, April 1998, pp. 19-20) — work that has breathed a new vitality into these fields? … The editors of the journal Social Text, in which Sokal’s spoof article was originally published, have also been overwhelmed by the authority of these fields. Indeed, it is just for this reason that they accepted Sokal’s article as a sincere attempt by an academic author to apply concepts from physics, which they did not understand, to cultural studies. They trusted him, all the more so since he was a physicist at a prestigious institution. But he deliberately betrayed that trust by producing what he knew to be drivel with a view to exposing and humiliating them. The lesson is obvious. Those of us working in the humanities and social sciences – as well as our students and the public at large – should not be so quick to trust people in the “hard” sciences, notably physicists. We should not take them uncritically at their word. Which is, of course, just what researchers in the history and social studies of science have been insisting on for the last two decades.”FN8

Jay Rosen said, “Although it would have been agonizingly difficult (pride is involved), I very much wish the editors had reacted differently. Had they said, “We goofed” right away, and then examined – penetratingly and in public – everything that led them to accept the Sokal article, they might have demonstrated to literate America that what the academic Left thinks about itself is actually true: it has no peer when it comes to being critical of institutions. Social Text is an institution of the academic Left. It should have taken itself apart and put itself back together again after the Sokal debacle. It would have been fascinating and inspiring to watch. Working backwards from the hoax, like safety experts going over a crash site, they could have illuminated every standard they diluted in order to accept the article, and then asked themselves: Well, what are our standards? Consider what the editors have already admitted:

1. They did not understand the ideas they were publishing. (“Scientific ignorance,” Bruce Robbins calls it, acknowledging that the physics on display was Greek to them, as it would have been to anyone since much of it was gibberish or deliberate clowning by Sokal.)
2. They didn’t respect what they were publishing. (“From the first, we considered Sokal’s unsolicited article to be a little hokey … His adventures in PostmodernLand were not really our cup of tea,” Robbins and co-editor Andrew Ross wrote in a statement explaining their decision.)
3. But they published it anyway for political reasons. (“Enthusiasm for a supposed political ally,” Robbins says, explaining why they went for the essay. “We thought it argued that quantum physics, properly understood, dovetails with postmodern philosophy.” Note: what “dovetails” with the editors’ perspective is good because it dovetails. Can Sokal’s point be made any plainer? )
4. They were condescending to the author and his “hokey” ideas. (Robbins and Ross again: “It is not every day we receive a dense philosophical tract from a professional physicist. Not knowing the author or his work, we engaged in some speculation about his intentions, and concluded that this article was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation
from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field.” Earnest is what counted; intelligent — and intelligible — did not.)
5. They abandoned their attempts to improve what they were publishing when the author they condescended to resisted, thus doubling the condescension. (Robbins and Ross write: “Having established an interest in Sokal’s article, we did ask him informally to revise the piece. We requested him a) to excise a good deal of the philosophical speculation and b) to excise most of his footnotes. Sokal seemed resistant to any revisions …” So they went ahead anyway.)” FN9

FN 1 Alan Sokal, “A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies” at http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/
FN 2 ibid
FN 3 Stanley Aronowitz, “Alan Sokal’s “Transgression,” Dissent (Winter 1997): 107-110, at ibid.
FN 4 Alan Sokal, “Alan Sokal Replies [to Stanley Aronowitz],” Dissent (Winter 1997): 110-111, at ibid.
FN 5 Bruce Robbins, “Anatomy of a Hoax” Tikkun (September/October 1996): 58-59, at ibid.
FN 6 Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal, “What is all the fuss about?” Times Literary Supplement (17 October 1997): 17, at ibid.
FN 7 Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, Co-Editors Social Text at ibid.
FN 8 John Krige, “Cannon-fodder for the Science Wars,” Physics World (December 1998): 49-50, ibid.
FN 9 Jay Rosen, “Swallow Hard: What Social Text Should Have Done,” Tikkun (September/October 1996): 59-61, ibid

image from http://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal.html

comic
The other day I mentioned to a friend that I’ve been writing a blog. Naturally enough, he asked me what I write about.

I froze – I had no idea how to put it into a couple of sentences, especially since I was working on The Communist Manifesto without Nouns at the time. Next time I will be prepared – a condition I very rarely experience. So here’s the answer to that question:

I mostly write about the relation between a visual artist’s work and their explanations of it, and how theory can affect practice. Artists explain their practice to both themselves and others and they need to take care that their non-visual thinking does not contaminate their work through worry about the implications of their justifications and contextualizations. Concerns about a successful career are often the culprit, although not always. Regardless of your line of work, it’s easy to baffle yourself. Examine your thinking while you work. Are you thinking about how other people will react to it? That could lead to second rate work. Are you thinking about how this could be the best piece ever, as long as you don’t screw it up? This is the right track. It should be meant to please you, and nobody else but you. Strangely enough, that will give it the furthest reach. I don’t think Shakespeare or Mozart were worried about the critics, or the guy next door.

Here’s a shorter version, assuming you plodded through the one above: I write about how artists can weaken their art because of their concerns about things like their career. I also write about other things that interest me, but the first thing still comes up from time to time.

And on that subject, this is a perfect time to post a Krendallgraph by the illustrious Wm. F. Krendall (apologies for the image quality, I only have a low resolution PDF of the final edit of issue 7, Fall 2004 of my presently defunct magazine Wegway Primary Culture (It was an appropriate sized file for emailing between the Art Director and me, the editor, in an era before Dropbox and the like) (and further apologies if you click that link because the website for the new version, Wegway 2.0, is incomplete, and basically non-functional, but there is some interesting stuff there, including, believe it or not, the proposed method of payment of contributors and the fine print)).

On my computer anyway, if you click on the images in my posts, they get big enough to actually read.

Edugraph

Karl_Marx

It’s time to let some other members of the Institute have their say.

André Questcequecest finished a book in 2010 after ten years of occasional work. Wm. F. Krendall provided the introduction and I added a preface. It will probably find its way into the Institute’s giant omnibus – working title, The Documents of the Institute for the Separation of Theory from Practice, which is still on a drawing board somewhere.

I’m pleased to present Questcequecest’s book here in its entirety, a small portion in this post and the balance on a linked page. This is a world premiere. Very exciting. Yes.

And by the way,

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The Communist Manifesto in English
With All Words Functioning as Nouns Removed
Except for the Title, Preface and Introduction
In order to Make It Formally Consistent
With the Theory of Dialectical Materialism

Short Title: The Communist
by
André Questcequecest 2001-2010

with a preface by
Stephen Eric Armstrong

and introduction by
Wm. F. Krendall

Preface

For the most part I don’t find conceptual art very interesting.

The idea that generates a conceptual artwork is the salient part, and once that idea is understood, the experience of the resultant work often feels redundant, unnecessary or even a bit “hot”, to use that word in Marshall McLuhan’s sense. I also suspect that on occasion, the exhibited objects of conceptual art are for the most part, ingenuous commodities. Naturally enough, we all have to make a living, but to paraphrase Marx, commercial relations falsify human relations, and as he said of paid journalists, himself included, writing for money is its own punishment.

Years ago, as I became aware of “Postmodernism”, I had an idea to make scaled down copies of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International as table lamps. They were to be called The Lamp of Postmodernism and I wanted them to be cast in bronze, as this would suggest a formal repudiation, perhaps through feigned ignorance, of the constructivist ideas involved in Tatlin’s work. I still might do it someday if I find the gumption and the money.

I think my idea is conceptual art, and I actually find it pretty interesting, so it might be worth making. But I may only feel this way because I thought of it. Hopefully the lamp, besides actually being useful as a lamp, is sufficiently pointed or poetic to be worthy of existence. It’s a serious decision after all. There’s already a lot of art in the world – no need to fill it to the brim.

At the least, I think the lamp communicates my take on post Modernism fairly well: Like all nihilism, post Modernism as an art practice, is unhealthy. Nietzsche said that (the part about nihilism and ill health). The desire for a better world becomes just so much grist for the mill.

And besides this, the dark times in twentieth century Europe that lead to the thought that poetry is no longer possible, also gave us horrific connotations concerning lampshades. I hope the callousness is apparent.

I have yet to make the lamps but I did make a rubber stamp image of the lamp in 1995 and produced an edition of “prints” in 1999. No one has ever accused me of being diligent. Yes, I’m a dawdler.
Steve Armstrong
The Communist Manifesto with all words functioning as nouns removed is pretty much unreadable and I would recommend that you don’t even bother trying. Well, maybe a page or two to get the general idea, but that would be more than enough because it won’t get any better further along. It’s a meaningless text that isn’t meant to be read. It is only meant to exist. It’s basically a joke about a particular absurdity I think André Questcequecest found in Marxist theory and it’s an unreadable waste of paper except to the extent that the gesture has been made visible.

Unlike The Communist, “The Magnetic Fields” (1919) by André Breton and Philippe Soupault is enjoyable to read. This is probably because of its failure as strict automatism. Breton and Soupault wrote quickly in order to access their “unconscious” and they did not revise or edit the text – they wished to avoid any stylistic and aesthetic considerations in the writing. I don’t think anyone has ever called it Fauve Literature, but I’m happy to do so.

Of course, it is not entirely possible to avoid all stylistic and aesthetic considerations. One’s taste will be an unseen guide and the decisions that generated the text can be imaginatively guessed. In the case of Breton and Soupault, I find their thinking charming. I feel acquainted with their working minds just as Blake welcomed Milton into his home. The Communist, on the other hand is merely the product of a process, a case of complete automatism. The result is much less charming. As a rule, conceptual art isn’t much to look at.

To illustrate the failure-success of “The Immaculate Conception”, here is a quote:

A perfect odour bathed the shadow and a thousand little scents ran up and down. They were thick circles, ravaged rags. Millimetres away, the endless adventures of microbes were perceptible. Style of cleansed cries and tamed visions. The brief puffs of smoke fell furiously and in disorder. Only the wind could absorb this living peat, these paralysed contrivances. The wild races, the bridge of delays, the instantaneous brutalizations were found to be joined together again and mixed with the blue sands of modernized pleasures, with sensational sacrifices, with the fleet flock of elect narcotics. There were the serious songs of sickly street alters, the prayers of merchants, the afflictions of swine, the eternal agonies of librarians.FN1

As an “executive summary” then, this book needed to exist and never be read, as it hints at the difference between practical things and art things. In Zurich, Lenin was acquainted with the dada artists at Cabaret Voltaire, and when he left for revolution in Russia, he chided them for not doing something useful. I’d like to write a play about that.

Stephen Eric Armstrong

FN1 Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, “The Magnetic Fields,” The Automatic Message, David Gascoyne, Antony Melville, and Jon Graham trans., (London: Atlas Press, 1997), p. 83.

Introduction

In his book, Marxist Esthetics, Henri Arvon explains Marxist doctrine with quotes from V. I. Lenin and George Lukács. I would like to reproduce two of his paragraphs and insert my own commentary. The quoted words appear in bolder type. The quote is continuous, without breaks or changes of order, thus Arvon can be read without my interruptions by reading only the bold type.

According to Marxist doctrine, essence is the sum total of the principal internal aspects of a process, whereas phenomena are the immediate outward expression of this process. The essence and phenomena are thus both related to the same process, and in this respect they are interdependent and indissociable. Lenin compares the essence to a deep current, and phenomena to waves and swirls of foam that disturb its surface. “The foam [is] on top and the deep currents below. But the foam is also the expression of the essence,” he states in his Philosophical Notebooks.

In my opinion, Marxist essence, “the sum total of the principal internal aspects of a process,” is merely a different way to refer to the potential explanation of a process. The essence of a process is what that process is doing. In addition, a preceding essence is similar to a cause which is, of course, just a different kind of explanation. Lenin’s interpretation differs – essence and phenomenon have equal status as actual things in the world. Ontologically speaking, internal aspects are not much different from external aspects (phenomena) – as Lenin says, deep currents versus disturbances on the surface – they’re both made out of water. I am left to wonder though, how an internal aspect can be an aspect at all, because it is concealed, invisible.

The prime task of Marxist esthetics, therefore, is to re-establish the dialectical unity of the essence and the phenomena, in contradistinction to the tendencies of bourgeois esthetics, which disregards human totality and makes of the essence and phenomena two different levels of consciousness.

Waves and foam are visible but deep currents are not. A bourgeois aesthetics might regard these deep currents as something that is theorized, surmised, supposed or deduced, whereas the phenomena of waves and foam are the things that are seen or perceived. These are quite rightly “two different levels of consciousness,” in spite of the fact they both concern the same process. The process is indeed a totality but the consciousness of it requires division by mental function – for instance sensation, perception, and cognition. The “human totality” to be presented in a work of art will be experienced by a total human who will, no doubt, be tempted to divide his consciousness in order to understand what is being experienced.

According to George Lukacs, art must “provide an image of reality in which the counterpointing of phenomenon and essence, the exception and the rule, immediacy and the concept, etc., is so intimate a blend of the two opposites that they totally intermingle and form a spontaneous unity in the immediate impression we have of a work of art, constituting for the person experiencing them an indivisible unity.”
FN1

This is, of course, what Bertolt Brecht was attempting to do in works such as The Three Penny Opera. If internal aspects become something that is experienced like the phenomena they are associated with, and thus form a “spontaneous unity”, then there could well be internal aspects of internal aspects, and so on, an infinite regress, which at some point, I suspect, encounters an agenda for social engineering. As Tristan Tzara says, “Dialectics is an amusing machine that leads us (in banal fashion) to the opinions which we would have held in any case”FN2. One thing is clear: Nouns can be misleading in that a rigorous application of Marxist theory leads to the conclusion that they all refer to an infinite regress of some sort.

André Questcequecest has decided to rewrite The Communist Manifesto to make it formally consistent with the theory behind it, a theory that seems to imply that all things are a process and thus more like verbs than nouns. But even verbs imply a thing performing the action, or having it performed on them.

Interestingly, removing the contradiction between form and content has mostly served to cause sense and nonsense to exchange places. This demonstrates that The Communist Manifesto is politics and not art or science. And more importantly, that art requires a fairly tight relation between what it wants to say and how it says it – content and form. But naturally enough, that’s what I thought in the first place.

Wm. F. Krendall

FN1 Henri Arvon, Marxist Esthetics, Helen R. Lane, trans., (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1973), p. 50

FN2 Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto, 1918,” Dada Almanach, Richard Huelsenbeck, ed., M. Green, D. Wynand, T. Hale, B. Wright, A. Melville, and S. Barnett trans., (London: Atlas Press, 1993) p.127.

The Communist

A is haunting — the of. All the of old have entered into a holy to hunt down and exorcise: and and French and German.

Where is the in that has not been denounced as communistic by its in? Where the that has not hurled back the branding of against the more advanced, as well as against its reactionary?

Two result from this:
I. Is already acknowledged by all European to be a.
II. Is high that should openly, in the of the whole, publish their, their, their, and meet this nursery of the of with a of the.

To this, of various have assembled in and sketched the following, to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish, and Danish.

I.
and

The of all hitherto existing is the of class.

And, , and, and, in a, and, stood in constant to, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open, a that each ended, either in a revolutionary of at large, or in the common of the contending.

In the earlier of, we find almost a complicated of into various, a manifold of social. In ancient we have, , , ; in the Middle, feudal, , , , , ; and in almost all of these particular, again, other – subordinate.

The modern bourgeois that has sprouted from the of feudal has not done away with class. Has only established new, new of, new of in of the old.

If you’re interested, the rest is here, proof positive André Questcequecest actually completed the task. You’ll probably recognise the last paragraph.

The actual work by Marx and Engels can be found here.

SELF-SERVING ADDENDUM

In 1978 I made a pencil drawing called, Under Construction: The Gardiner Expressway looking East Towards Jameson.
Here was something that could put Toronto on the map.

Tatlin Toronto

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