People have asked me, on occasion, why I would bother having stupid arguments on sites such as facebook. The answer is that while the context of facebook encourages the superficial, and limits in-depth discussions, it also allows for connections to be made between people who might not otherwise ever meet. That said, the social media platforms are all there to gather data for corporations, and prevent substantive analysis. They are perfect for posting photos of cats with cute copy inserted, and pictures of people’s kids, and so forth. Nothing wrong with any of that, of course. But, to answer the question, I think it’s important to engage with people, even if it’s with someone hopelessly ignorant or out of touch. Sometimes it matters just to have something said out loud (so to speak). It matters because if you provide even a small seed of change in that person, or they in you, then you have reached everyone in the world. I believe I am paraphrasing the Talmud in saying this.
Now, I’ve been thinking, as I do, a lot about culture. I had another debate with someone the other day about the “spiritual”. This is a word I have trouble with. I don’t know what it means. I dont think those who use it know what it means, either. I think part of what it means is that is that one can’t really define its meaning. It is a sort of negative space word. Its meaning is all the things it isn’t.
The third strand I want to talk briefly about is what an audience means. This immediately raises questions of history, and society. The final element in all this, at least as I’ve thought about it this week, is image. The way in which narrative intersects with image. Of course this is a very vast topic.
In an age of electronic media, image…technically manufactured image, has changed the way in which we see the world. It has changed the way we orient ourselves in the world. There is a serious philosophical question involved in how and why man created image. It is too large in scope for this posting. I can say that at some pre-historical place and time man created image to be a means of explaining or mapping the world around him or her. The conundrum enters here, though, because image also serves to distance ourselves from the world. Heidegger, for one, spent a lot of time pondering this (between various exterminationist fantasies and daydreams of Nazi parades). Heidegger thought technology — and I won’t attempt anything like a full explanation of this topic — was connected to his critique of the University and education, or research and the principles and methods guiding this. For Heidegger, the world was shaped via technology, by Gestell, a creating or shaping of the world so it appears a certain way to us, for us. It appears like a repository of ‘things’ we can reach for, know, and use. ‘Things’ which our knowledge, give us in this form. Now, in a sense this is a way of ‘looking’ at the world. A view of the world and of things. The short version, relevant to our discussion, is that the immediacy of the object becomes mediated through this over-all view of the world. Objects lose something of their primal nature and become only, or partially anyway, chunks of this *ordering* view. Eventually, man himself begins to experience himself or herself as part of this ordering principle. In compensation, we elevate ourselves to Lords of this principle — the catalogue of things is there FOR us, only when we may need or desire them. The world is standing at attention (the German translation implies this)waiting our call. And then, it is ‘we’ who are there waiting upon ourselves.
In other words, things have value in their potential calculability. Measure, weigh and catalogue. We answer to method and not history. For Heidegger, the University had given itself over to this principle, totally. Now, this leads to the second more important topic(for this discussion), and that is that another implication of this domination by technology, is that everything has become a picture.
An aspect of this is discussed early in Heidegger, in his seminar on Schelling. He discusses the various philosophical meanings of ‘systemizing’. The inner jointure or carpentry, which supports our picture. The short form version is that any system will trend toward becoming so: the principle of an inventoried sense of reality, will rely more and more on research methods to form a picture of the real. An *Image* of the real. The world has become invisible to itself. This is complicated because of the introduction of language. What is concealed are the mechanisms of thought and perception in which concealment was a property that actively ‘unconcealed’. We drift off into cuckoo Heidegger-talk here, so I will leave off.
I go into all this, because today the manufacture of image has changed not just how we view the world, but our social lives as well, and our economic lives and labor.
*Image* is now not just what seperates us, in some way, from a more immediate relationship to the the object, but a screen which intentionally hides specific parts of the world and of objects.
This is done partly through the logic of social domination, and partly through the commodifying of things. It’s capitalism, it’s selling and consuming. The point I want to get to has to do with how we script the images we have before us. And, more to the point, how photographs –by virtue of their frozen-in-time quality — allow us the space (!) to write a fuller narrative (mimetically).
This brings us back to the spiritual and to culture in general. Art has always had a magical dimension. As Vilem Flusser says, lives have become a function of their own images. Imagination has turned into hallucination. I remember Edward Said gave an intervew right before his death. He was asked his most intense experience at present, of the world. He said “unreality”. That has always stayed with me. There is something inherent, perhaps, or possibly only the result of those in control of manufacturing techno-image, that gives them a greater than ever before DISTANCE from the immediate and sensual. The idols of ancient Egypt, carried in their images…those on the walls of temples or steele… a good deal of the ritual violence of that society — but in ways utterly different than Tarantino expresses his trivial sadism, or the way TV cops shows express theirs.
I actually think the classic meanings for metaphor and metonomy have blurred, if not simply eroded. Metonomy is where a Crown carries the meaning of King. Metaphor is where, in a painting, a banner held high above a horse charging into battle will mean courage, or become a metaphor for sacrifice, perhaps.
Today, as imagination falls into hallucination, metaphor loses traction. Are there even any real metaphors in Hollywood film? Metonomy is branding. The crown is not the King, it is King Cola. Or King wool socks. or King Bisquits.
Flusser thinks this crisis of perception happened once before, in the 2nd millenium. Where alienation had become so acute, between thing and human, that people tried to pin down the original feeling and meaning behind the images……and then to render them into linear pixels….into linear writing. However that happened, if it did, linear writing marked the start of what we know as history. Now, I have spoken before about the death of Tragedy. That it was the Socratic rationality that rejected the irrational world of myth and daemons. Of the oracular and magical. I won’t go into that again, but for Benjamin, this happened by the time of Euripides. The world of the medieval Church expresses this struggle between a primordial Dionysian energy, and an anti pagan textual fidelity. The rise of the Industrial Revolution, after the Enlightenment, but linked directly, further regimented thought. Texts were caught between several forces, one of which was domination through a specific logic of control, connected to the solidifying of nation-states. Texts desired to eradicate image. Texts implemented codified law. Roman law, things such as inheritance, created a new outlet for the desire for immortality. Earlier church dogma, and before that the allegorical realms of myth, were distilled (and boiled away in part) by textual inflexibility.
These forces all reach tipping points. Science, the realms of high math and physics now more closely resemble ancient Hindu texts than anything else. They are conceptually more dionysian than most artworks produced by corporate agencies of domination. Image…technically produced image, is now more inflexible and anti-Dionysian, anti-sexual, and anti liberation than any rigid textual code found in law books or constitutions.
This absorption and subsumtion of image gets us back to the notion of the spiritual. I posted a Haiku one day. People clicked “like”. However the desire is so powerful to “explain” in literal terms the “meaning” of poetry, that people added little comments of an explanatary nature. You cannot explain art. You can analyse it. You can discuss it and should discuss it. But, the immediate interaction is one of silence….or, I suppose of tortured screaming. But lets stick with silence. It is the silence of infinite meaning.
As Flusser says; “anyone who tries to imagine anything, for example, using the equation of the theory of relativity, has not understood it”.
If your Ikea bookshelf came with the instructions of how to put it together, but left out any technical drawings, any images or pictures, would you be able to assemble it? Not unless you were a carptenter and had aquired the knowlege of intuition, of a trained instinct. Writers who think they have to make storylines, or outlines, are suffering a profound delusion about creativity.
Of peace and of holy good
there was perfect knowing,
in profoundest solitude
the only true way seeing,
yet so secret is the thing
that I was left here stammering,
all knowledge there transcending.
St. John of the Cross
I want to write more on technology and photography. And on what the social means in terms of history and art and audience. And also, what of the “spiritual”.
The problem with that word, and the reason it shouldn’t even be used anymore, is that it has been murdered and tied up and sold like a carcass of meat. The fuck does “spiritual” mean? It means nothing. However, I think that behind it, are the traces of an earlier feeling connected to the ecstatic and to delerium. To madness, as well. There is a huge set of forces stopping a lot of people from letting go of the literal meaning for things. As if life, as if the world, came with an instruction manual — like from Ikea.
The photograph stops us from rushing our narrative. The mimetic re-telling of image — in a world of screens, hurtles forward, moving quickly to the next image. The technological produced image, of which 95% are likely connected somehow to the selling of something, and as such they tend to not need a narrative. Marketing people understood very early that TV images….the old kind anyway….were given to the viewer almost like crayon drawings, where an outline surrounds the object. Hence, they were perfect for commercials. Technical images — computer graphics — have nothing that needs de-coding. I remember in Krakow, when I lived there, they decided to dig up and replace the old town square stones. I’m sure there was a good reason, actually, as this is a medieval city, and there were water problems and so forth. But they replaced them with stones cut by machine. Technically produced drawings planned the repaving and machine cut stones replaced the ancient worn hand cut stones. Suddenly the Rynek looked like Disneyworld. It was awful. I think a collective sadness fell over the city for a few days, in fact. One was walking along a pre-decoded street. Why are the pre-fab housing tracts of the 1950s now synonymous with ugliness and oppression of the spirit?
Artists are almost by definition, workers at resisting manipulation. Manipulation is the province of marketers and politicians. I am also coming to see the degree of violence an exchange of money has for things “spiritual” or for art. None of us can avoid it, believe I know this. In the realm of the religious or spiritual, however, money is even more pernicious. Gurus asking for payment, much like shrinks asking for money to “help” you, are deeply suspect. Freud was wrong about that one. Do not tell me you won’t help me if I don’t pay you. Don’t tell me I can’t smoke or eat whatever…. and in the same way, I don’t want artworks to engage me on a level of the prohibitionary. By which I mean, if the narrative demands I access old files in my brain where structural cliches are buried, then I am going to suffer. But today we face the crisis of a populace, even people with genuine revolutionary potential, even community organizers and various protesters of good conscience, are crippled with a literal mindedness, a disrespect for art and for that which cannot be explained.
And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain.
Neruda (Bly, tr.)
precise as hell is, precise
as any words, or wagon,
can be made
The truth is, computer generated images, in fact all technical produced images, contain codes we have no idea how to decode. I will write more on this next posting. But it is as if we are wandering the streets of Cairo with a map of Omaha. The noise of sales, of selling and sellers, the noise of distractions have started to coalesce into one long unending shriek. If it’s true that the original word, in ancient Greek, for tragedy was meant, when spoken, to sound like a goat being butchered, then the implosion of noise in advanced capital is the sound of a thousand goats or chickens or hogs slaughtered by machine in some factory farming nightmare. The ways in which is narrative is interrupted in all this is an entire post by itself.
There are a lot of other issues intersecting here. The invention of printing, the mechanically reproduced image and an implementation of universal education. The forms that took, shaped by ideas of control, introduce the ideological dimension into this discussion. But for the moment, I want to reflect on a few simple things. Art is joined at the hip, somehow, with its audience. A dancer leaping about in an ecstatic trance, under the moon, all alone in the forst, is not making art. It might be “spiritual” — but art must engage history. It must mimetically recapitulate the author’s own histoy or the audience’s history, or both, even if its in the most dense code, and it must remember history. For that is our paradox now. The de-coding is by default returning itself to antiquity, to pre-history, even as it announces itself as doing the opposite, as leaping into the future.
Art has always contained a hermetic dimension. Notwithstanding the rise of popular culture, and now the corporate controlled concept of “entertainment”, which is a consciously mystifying set of products and image. The hermetic, accused of elitism, was also connected by various guides, or experts, or text-books, to the masses. I am generalizing a lot here, but the specialist texts were just an accelerating of a principle put in play all the way back to Socrates. The study of the skies, the alchemists, the early astronomers, the magicians and magi — shamans and healers, all of these were keeping a foot in the waters of the Dionysian. All were, in various ways, more concerned with the *object* than with the cataloguing of it. The trajectory of science and medicine is perhaps the most complex and difficult to unravel because of the variety of image, text, and experience involved historically. The spiritual was really the there to afford space — mimetic space, a ceremonial silence, figurative or real, metaphor or metonomy.
I often wonder at the ancestral backdrop to “applause”. Did people clap or cheer when that goat was butchered? Modern spectacles sometimes feel a bit like some terrible ceremony in celebration of events too obscene to allow conversation or dialogue about. There is something for sale even in theatre, and in music performance. Much as popular music wants to evoke tribal legacies, the facts are different. The aping of “pictures” of tribalism are all that are left. In the classical sphere, the class residue is so pronounced that the rhythm of the clapping barely registers in terms of its historical roots. Executions, once public, are now hidden away, to be viewed by small groups, much like a household watching the evening news on TV. I suspect public executions might however, were they held, result in the wild applause and cheering so sought after by event promoters. The NFL blood sport is greeted that way. In a year with Child molestation, unprosecuted rape, several suicides…one AT the stadium during a training session, and increasing numbers of ex-players showing signs of dementia, it’s curious to see the spectacle dial up the violence quotient as much as possible (in marketing terms).
Still, applause remains one of the things separating earlier magical image and narrative from the modern cleansing of public events, a cleansing of any hint of barbarism or a tribal past— putting in its place the fethishized and oddly distant spectacle of football, the Academy Awards, or White House briefing. A society so mediated by manufactured image and message isn’t likely to miss the primordial silence of infinite meaning as it is captured, always fleetingly, by art, spectacle, or meditation — the cultivating of a refined taste. Such ideas are laughed at today. From the left it is elitism, from the right its just a non starter in a business sense. The Roman throng, the mob, the vomitorium crush no different from Wembley or the SuperDome, or Wimbledon. The gladitorial sacrifice of the original coliseum seems quaint because the codes were so simple in comparison. Today, high above sporting events are giant screens. On these screens are sales pitches, military recruitments, and the sports-play just seen in real time, shown over and over and over again. The still photograph ….pre digital….now seems almost meditative, almost Elsyian.
In theatre today, the applause smells of the sickly enforced friendliness of used car salesmen at a convention. In film theatres, the audience usually slides in quietly, eats, sips cola, and then at the end while walking back out will almost ritually pronounce verdict. The ticket was really a ticket to own an opinion.
Within that alchemical and Oracular space that preceded Enlightenment’s final ax blow to the ecstatic unknown… a narrative played out, an Oedipal or Dionysian, a magical or utopian revolutionary one — whichever or whatever one it was, it was a form of dreaming … in which the image was there to orient the narrative. The photograph … early photography especially, provided an historical moment where image was held still. I suspect the ability to see what often was felt to have escaped, was the initial and profound experience of the photographic image.
As for the spiritual; the disciplines and practices of a monastary culture, Asian mostly, overlap a good deal with art. There are real questions here though, in respect of the material world of domination. What might spiritual resistance look like? I’m not sure, but I suspect it’s a meaningful question. I have questions about the “spiritual” if it thinks a feudal social dynamic isn’t a problem. Awakening from material slavary and awakening from the enslaved metaphor, or just from the principles of domination, must somehow mutually feed each other.
The endless reproducibility of image, and its equally endless circulation, are the guiding overriding principles of culture in the 21st century, at least in the advanced west. *Going viral* is now an unofficial award of recognition, for having accrued a certain amount of value. Originally a marketing term, with etymological links to contagion and disease, this is the arena of manufactured image and attention. The image that allows no reflection, no de-coding, and no echo of history.