Archives for category: Postmodernism

damien_hirst_dots_gagosian-777x592

Damien Hirst Spot Painting

There is an abandoned building near Iroquois Ontario that says, “I love Christine Kirkwood by Cole”. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s important, but this message has stayed with me like poetry. Christine Kirkwood sounds very beautiful and I think Cole uses all of Christine’s name so he can call up her complete and perfect idea. If he knew her middle initial, that would be part of the conjuring as well – Christine J. Kirkwood. Their relationship does not seem equal to me, just like their names. Christine Kirkwood probably does not love Cole. She may not even like him, or for that matter, know who he is.

I also find the word, “by” in “I love Christine Kirkwood by Cole” very significant. It is definitely childlike, but it also reveals an important truth. “I love Christine Kirkwood” is the title of a greater work by Cole, not just a simple statement of fact. Our feelings involve the whole of us, all of our bodies, including our nasal passages and bowels, and no matter how sophisticated we become, we can never produce an expression that equals a state of our selves. Loving Christine Kirkwood is so much more than can ever be said. We remain alone with our secrets and yearnings except when they are unintentionally revealed to a steadfast interpreter.

Artists are like Cole in that intentional self-expression may not be possible. Self-portraiture, on the other hand, certainly is possible. Whenever someone makes something, that artefact is accompanied by an imaginary someone who is plausible as the person who made that something. This is not the artist – this is an image of the artist in the mind of the viewer. The writer-person who you are starting to imagine as you read my words is a good example of a plausible imaginary someone. My thoughts on Cole are also an example.

Artists can manipulate this image of themselves to help them appear clever, or innovative, or whatever it is they want for themselves. But it is difficult to be a perfect manipulator. It follows from this that the image of the artist that becomes apparent in a work of art is only partially intentional on the artist’s part, while the rest, that being the artist-desired part, is unintentional or perhaps even an error or oversight depending on the artist’s mendacity. Friedrich Nietzsche says that reading a philosopher’s works uncovers the character or moral health of that philosopher. I am saying something similar about art and artists. If my claim holds, it could be a great boon to the hermeneutics industry.

klee.ancient-sound

Paul Klee, Ancient Sound, oil on cardboard, 15″ x 15″, 1925, coll. Kunstsammlung, Basel. http://www.sai.msu.su/wm/paint/auth/klee/

The thought of ancient sound is truly delightful and reminds me of some lines from a poem by Hans Arp, “No one detects now the track of his baby shoes. They left not even a threadlike trace of a tiny hiking-song in the air.” [Hans Arp, “The Seraphim and Cherubim” in Three Painter Poets: Arp, Schwitters, Klee, Harriet Watts trans., Penguin Books, 1974, p. 32]

The self-portrait that Klee is showing me is a playful, modest person who takes great pleasure in poignancy. My imaginary Klee has charmed me. It’s also a beautiful painting.

Sometimes a painter paints in a particular way just to make a painting that is painted in that particular way. These kinds of paintings are meant to look just as they look. This is a very straightforward kind of painting, and it makes a much better door than window. In other words, the painting that is right in front of me is the thing intended to be seen, and the painting is not meant to be seen through to something else such as a talented imaginary artist.

It is very nice that some straightforward, door-like paintings are about the paint itself, or the support for that paint (formal concerns), but it is much more interesting when straightforward paintings are also about something else as well, this often referred to as “content”. But content contains an unfortunate metaphor – content is not inside a painting, content is the painting perceived.

This is why a straightforward painting, even when it is about something else as well, ancient sound as an example, still makes a better door than window. The painting is the thing to be seen, not an imaginary painter or an alienated context such as “the history of art such that this painting is a part of it”, “the history of art such that this painting is a clean break with it” or “an appropriate stance on a burning issue of the day”. These latter kinds of paintings are conceptual paintings.

A conceptual painting is thus an object that is presented as if it were a painting. Some fancy people might call this a simulacrum, but I believe these two things are different. Unfortunately, I don’t find it worth the time just now to clarify that distinction. Thus, a stretched canvas that has had paint applied to it by a human and then been hung on a wall could well not be a painting at all. Fun.

Conceptual painting is not straightforward – it is painting that is presented as painting in order to make a point about something unrelated that is not there to be seen in the painting itself. It might be something like, “The person who made this painting has a new and better understanding of some particular strand in the history of art up to and including this painting here which is making this very point”.

It will be up to the viewer/interpreter to figure out what that understanding might be. An official artist’s statement can be of great value in this regard. The long tradition of the artist’s manifesto has evolved into a standard business letter document to help viewers negotiate these conceptual issues. Most contemporary artists are wary of the artist’s statement. To keep their inscrutability intact, it is better to leave this to their gallery representatives and the critics who write articles about them.

Conceptual painting of course, is a wonderfully clever thing to do, and it makes the painter an art historian and theorist worthy of respect. It also makes the conceptual painter not a painter at all and the conceptual painting not a painting, in spite of the fact it looks like one.

In my opinion, Damien Hirst’s spot paintings are fine examples of conceptual paintings. There is nothing to be gained by merely looking at them, just like all conceptual art, knowing about them is sufficient. There’s more on this in my preface to The Communist Manifesto without Nouns.

I think the spot paintings are primarily about how art is a kind of money, which is not a terribly novel idea – the idea of the cultural commodity has been nagging the conscience of artists for quite a while. Oscar Wilde said that a philistine knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. This comment may or may not be applicable to this discussion, although I suspect it is. I feel confident that Hirst’s Spot Paintings are conceptual paintings with a debt to Warhol, and they therefore they have nothing to do with spots.

paintings-by-georges-seurat-3

Georges Seurat, Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp, 1885.

Seurat, on the other hand, was very interested in spots.

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satiescol97 6.5x9.5x58

Steve Armstrong, Satie’s Column, 6.5″ x 9.5″ x 58″, acrylic on wood, 1997.

schoecol96 7x10x94

Steve Armstrong, Schoenberg’s Column, acrylic on wood, 7″ x 10″ x 94″, 1994.

I find spots interesting as well.

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And Robert Fones also sees something interesting in spots and dots..

wonder_bread

http://archives.chbooks.com/online_books/head_paintings/wonder_bread.html

Here’s Fones from the Coach House books site:

WONDER BREAD

I have always liked the simplicity of the six dots in the Wonder Bread logo and its evocation, in product design, of Modernist principles. I remember seeing the logo as a child and associating it with one of my favourite comic book characters, Little Dot, a girl who was obsessed with dots and collected them the way other people might collect coins or butterflies. To construct this painting I found a Wonder Bread logo on the side of a truck and photographed it in order to find out how many different sizes of dots there were, and how the dots were arranged. As with Pancetta, once I positioned an altered configuration of dots on the face, I extended them back in perspective as if they were solid material. I thought of the eyes and tongue as planes of material cutting through the solid logo, hence whatever colour they sliced through was carried forward or backward in pictorial space. The head ended up looking clown-like but rather tragic, as if it was unaware of the dots on its face.

I see more in Fones’ piece than he mentioned. He mostly described the imaginative play that artists enjoy so much, “I extended them [the dots] back in perspective as if they were a solid material”. Fones’ playful attitude towards his work seems similar to that of Paul Klee. But besides this, I see a metaphor for perception. The spots to be perceived by the face are on the outer surface of that face, and they leak in through its sense organ holes. It says to me that the things I perceive are not “over there”, I am actually touched by everything. There is no empty space between me and the things I experience. On my part of course, this is just more of that imaginative play that artists enjoy so much. It’s also worth noting that Klee’s “Ancient Sound” is also a reference to perception.

And to get back to Seurat, he was a very earnest fellow researching the limits of the relationship between granularity and continuousness as it applies to perception. There might be a reason why spots and dots seem to lend themselves so well to meditations on perception. Henri Bergson published Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness in 1910 which also considers the issues of the discrete versus the continuous. It was based on his doctoral dissertation of 1889. For what it’s worth, this was contemporary with Seurat.

As an aside, Seurat also made absolutely superb pencil drawings. I love them very much.

seurat drawing
Georges Seurat,
Aman–Jean, conté crayon on paper; 24 1/2″ x 18 11/16″, (62.2 x 47.5 cm) 1883. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/61.101.16

 

Discussion Points for ISTP Novices, Fledglings, and Supplicants

Was Hirst’s character impugned?

Was this text theoretical, or anti-theoretical, or both?

Is there any urgency to understanding the distinction between a simulacrum and something that is regarded as if it were something else?

Image at top: Damien Hirst Spot Painting from http://www.pasunautre.com/2011/12/28/art-in-2012/

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williams-web
I’ve just discovered an interesting artist, Alan Uglow, thanks to an article by Gregory Williams in The Brooklyn Rail (Image courtesy of Brooklyn Rail) The painting on the right is from 1994, the serigraph “portrait” of the painting is from 2000.

This was going to be about Uglow and me and possibly Gerhard Richter and how copying your own work is a way forward from appropriation, the arbitrariness of subject matter, and the general flatness of everything. Then I got upset.

The problem started when I searched for Sherrie Levine to confirm she was the one who did rephotographing. That’s when I stumbled on this painting of hers, part of a series completed between 1987 and 2002. This particular one is from 1988.

Sherrie Levine plywood

So why am I upset?

I made these two plywood knot paintings in 1993, and called them The Things at the Edge of the Universe 1 and 2, 45″ x 50″ and 15″ x 26″.

edguniv93 45x50

thgsuniv93 15x26

So of course they have something to do with appropriation and how it is related to the difficulty deciding on subject matter when all things seem equal. They are ‘found’ compositions to some extent. All I had to do was colour them in.

We’re living on a very smooth plain, it’s difficult to find things sticking up enough to warrant sincere attention. This also has a bearing on attitudes to copyright, which is the reason everything I publish has been under

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

But there is more. These two paintings are not just about appropriation, the lack of reasons and commitments, and the act of choosing itself. The latter two were well covered by Warhol and Duchamp respectively. The first one, appropriation art, is mainly a rehash of Warhol and Duchamp’s ideas taken to their end point. When youthful spite subsides, it’s time to respect your tradition. That’s the only way to change it. (T. S. Eliot, more or less.)

These two paintings have rounded corners, mildly suggestive of cathode ray tubes, what TV’s looked like in 1993. They are covered in very scratched quarter-inch plexiglass which elevates visibility to a second simultaneous picture plane. The plexiglass has a gridded array of holes drilled in it for finishing nails and the occasional screw. The grid is not square with the sides of the work, which gives the grid some tilt, but no vanishing point.

The nails hold the layers together, but they are also visible objects that travel through all the virtual objects generated with paint and scratches. Nails as wormholes perhaps, the things at the edge of the universe maybe – and all along we thought it was the painted knots. “Ha ha”, as Bosse-de-Nage the dog faced baboon would say. (Please refer to Alfred Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician).

For the most part I don’t mind obscurity, but there are times when it’s frustrating. Frustrating because I feel compelled to defend and explain my work when I come across things that look quite similar – plywood knot paintings for example. But as Mosheim apparently said, “Renown is a source of toil and sorrow; obscurity is a source of happiness” [I got this from  J. W. Von Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann (Washington and London: M. Walter Dunne, 1901), p. 6. And I have no idea who Mosheim is.]

Thankfully, I think it’s possible to feel schadenfreude for my own misfortune. Grimly satisfying wound licking isn’t half bad. While flattering myself that my work measures up to his, I can easily imagine myself in the circumstances of Kurt Schwitters. He said we shouldn’t worry about his obscurity and poverty because he knew very well how important he was. And he is important – his shadow continues to grow, just as Picasso’s shrinks. Therefore, I will not be bothered by the fact that I seem to have made a career of being overlooked and underestimated.

mz-231-miss-blanche-1923
http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kurt-schwitters/mz-231-miss-blanche-1923

1923 – and it contains seeds of almost all the ‘retinal’ art that follows. (“Retinal” is a reference to Duchamp’s pejorative term for all art that isn’t ‘conceptual’, for lack of a better word. It seems to me though, that visual art would use a retinal vehicle.) And looking at this one humble collage from 1923, I know I have a lot of work to do. The insidious influence of theory still drives me, I’m not retinal enough.

Sherrie Levine has made her career as an “appropriation artist”. She came to my attention in 1980 when she rephotographed pictures by Walker Evans and showed them as her own. It was a brilliant choice because Evans was such a damned earnest photographer, living in a time when artists really thought they were making a difference (aesthetic, political or both) – Schwitters, John Heartfield, Rodchenko, and so on. Levine’s move was a refreshingly bitter thing to do.

I’m sympathetic with appropriation, and in the 1970’s I tried my hand at it with a series of one-piece collages. From time to time, from 1976 to 1999, I tore things from newspapers, magazines, brochures, and maps that appealed to me, mounted them and signed them. These two are both coincidentally from 1979. I picked them because they look nice on my computer screen.

collage 1979

collage map 1979

Seeing that map once again makes me think it would make a great painting – a little bit of a Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park Series thing going on.

Richard_Diebenkorn's_painting_'Ocean_Park_No.129'
From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Richard_Diebenkorn%27s_painting_%27Ocean_Park_No.129%27.jpg

My use of appropriation was sour grapes and cleverness to some extent, but it still had a hint of vicarious escape from media saturation in it. I took back the initiative, the choosing, I was less of a passive consumer. That was the do-good, Schwitters part, but that’s hardly adequate.

Appropriation is basically a rehash of Conceptual and Pop art. It is the blindingly obvious thing to do after Duchamp and Warhol. It’s also a one-trick pony to establish an art career – but if you keep doing the same thing for long enough, you’ll probably get famous. Morris Lewis demonstrated it and General Idea satirized it. As far as appropriation goes, I couldn’t be bothered with anything more than some scrap booking – there are so many other things to think about.

So much for being vexed, and onto the matter of copying your own work. I have three rules for art making: It needs charm, it acknowledges its roots in a tradition, and it contains some other idea, hopefully a new way to see or understand something. That’s a tall order, and I know I don’t always succeed.

In 1977 I propped a book on the arm of a chair. It was open to a photograph of Marcel Duchamp taken by Alfred Stieglitz and I photographed it. I then signed and dated the photo. If art were physics, then Duchamp’s Law would be, “The art of a thing is the choice.” I chose Stieglitz’s photo to be my art.

Levine’s photos of Evan’s photos are more pointed – they’re just the photos with no surrounding context, they’re about appropriation, pure and simple. My photo is polluted with context: the image, the book and the chair in my living room – frames within frames. Besides appropriation, it’s also about my sense of being on the outside, looking through a window into the art world, like watching a family dinner while standing in the snow. Art students sometimes feel that way, very Dickens.

Duchamp 1977
I also enjoyed signing the front – photographers rarely do that.

I 2000, I photographed my photograph and printed it on enough paper to write a screed. It was intended to be amusing like my Artist Statement from a previous post.

Duchamp 2000

It says, “I don’t think Jeff Koons and Sherrie Levine are Postmodernists. I see them as Academic Modernists, Duchamp’s epigoni reworking the readymade concept ad nauseum. My student work of 1977 reflects the same concerns: I accepted what I was taught about permissible museum-grade transgression. To a certain extent, Modernism seems to have been about the quiddity of art itself. Assuming this problem has been solved, and as far as I know, it hasn’t, the next logical step is the quiddity of quiddity. Unfortunately this issue is extremely abstract, and artists are better applied than theoretical philosophers. Instead, let’s suppose for a moment that some point would be served if we were to force historical facts into a dialectical process. This granted, the next dialectical step is to reconsider the ideas negated by Modernism. Notwithstanding De Stijl and Earthworks, (because historical facts must be carefully chosen) the negated ideas are the Beautiful and the Sublime. The other next dialectical step is to chose the particulars of Modernism which need to be negated. Let these be transgression and the logical model of art practice. Therefore, I am pleased to announce that my dialectical thinking has discovered the possibility of a post Modernism. It only lacks a name.”

This definitely illustrates that I had developed some hostility towards theory.

Not much more to say. Here are three related works:

barrel collage 1979
One-piece collage, 1977.

barrel drawing 1999
Pencil drawing, 1999.

barrel photo 2000
Photograph, 2000.

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

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