The Child in the Tree

1919 Solar eclipse. (photography; ESO/Eddington and Crommelin)

“Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain/ His dark materials to create more worlds,–/ Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend/ Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,/ Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith/ He had to cross.”
John Milton (Paradise Lost)

“We don’t just talk anymore, we run programs. Whom do they serve?”
Jonathan Beller (Digitality and the Media of Dispossession)

“Bad philosophers are like slum lords.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein ( Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics)

“Our supposedly algorithmic culture is not a material phenomenon so much as a devotional one, a supplication made to the computers people have allowed to replace gods in their minds, even as they simultaneously claim that science has made us impervious to religion.”
Ian Bogost (The Cathedral of Computation, The Atlantic 2015)

“It is the quiet, prolonged activities of the hand which have created the only world in which we care to live.”
Elias Cannetti (Crowds and Power)

I want to begin with an essay of Jonathan Beller’s, Digitality and the Media of Dispossession in which he quotes Vilem Flusser from his book Toward a Philosophy of Photography. For Flusser, the camera inaugurated a qualitative architectonic shift in human consciousness. As Flusser put it, the camera is ‘computational thinking flowing into hardware’. This is a sort of central theme in Beller (see Murder is the Message).

“Flusser asserts that the photograph, “the first post-industrial image,” is a “technical image”—and therefore an abstract image—whose internal mechanics derive from the operation of written concepts. Thus, the photograph is a form of programming. Indeed, for Flusser, despite the appearance of transparency, the technical image is triply abstract. Very briefly, its genealogy is as follows: In what he calls the “pre-historical” era, the pictographic image (think cave painting) is a first abstraction from the visible world, mapping it to a two-dimensional picture plane that can be visually scanned. In the “historical” era, linear writing “tears up the image,” organizes its pieces in a linear manner, and imposes a temporal sequence. Flusser has given the example of an image containing stick figurations of a sun, two people, and a dog, which can then be written grammatically in “Mesopotamian tiles” as a linear sequence of these four elements. Linear writing is thus an abstraction of the image, which for Flusser is its “metacode.” Where the image is once abstracted from reality (three dimensions into two), writing is doubly abstracted (two dimensions into one). Furthermore, its strict imposition of linearity and temporal process gives rise to a new experience of time, which Flusser calls *history*. “
Jonathan Beller (Ibid)

The photographer then is using an apparatus that is built on written concepts.

“For his part, the photographer, sometimes referred to by Flusser as “the functionary,” is locked in a struggle with the overdeterminations imposed by the programming of the apparatus—an apparatus that clearly takes on cultural dimensions—given the dialectic of usage and innovation in which the apparatus is itself engaged. The camera is an interaction of programs, and the resultant image functions as a social program.”
Jonathan Beller (Ibid)

Fieroza Doorsen

The issue here is that the camera and photograph were precursors to the abstractions of the digital age. And this cuts to the central question, I think, which has to do with exactly what degree of change (and what quality ) is occurring as society becomes increasingly digitalized.

“Cinema, advertising, and banner ads clearly function in a network of politic-economic relation that convert affect to monetary units and are machines for the mining of attention, but these later forms are the key to the anatomy of their precursors: painting and photography, which must also be grasped as techniques of capture and strategies of control. Taken as whole, we could say that what was once, for the artist at least, only a more or less embarrassing presupposition and but one dimension of visual-cultural production has become the overriding component. Crudely put, these media (what is meant by “the media”) convert attention into cash—quality into quantity. Yes, there are many mediations, but the accountants (i.e., bankers) always do their best to have the last say.”
Jonathan Beller (Ibid)

Why is this important? The critique itself is another register of abstraction. And if writing is entwined inexorably with history, then historical consciousness is writing and reading. And, all programs are dependent on higher order programs. And that hierarchy is, as Beller says, ‘open at the top’. The question that is missing here, much as I accept this theory(s) is the human act of interpretation. And what has atrophied, because of the vast overdeterminations of the apparatus is the ability to interpret. The cave dwellers who looked at the paintings at Lascaux were interpreting them much as we interpret the images on our lap top screen. The optical engagement and the ‘thinking’ involved is probably much the same. What is not the same are the parameters of reference, the context, the mediation of historical learning. An accumulation of knowledge. But I will return to this later, because this idea of *knowledge* is too general a description.

And here is where the contemporary project of Artificial Intelligence intersects. And it worth detouring a moment to talk about Wittgenstein’s ideas on what constitutes ‘thinking’. The ‘picture theory’ of meaning has it that language works to present a ‘mirror’ of the world. Like building a clay model on the table top. Something architects seem to enjoy. Wittgenstein saw meaning as residing in what he called ‘language games’. And that we understand these games, whether football or chess or badminton, because of a pool of attributes they share.

Migishi Kōtarō

“Language is a matter of a shared horizon of experience. Doing language consists not merely understanding and following rules, but also shaping them in the act of participation. Language requires intuition in the interpretation of rules with a mix of prescription and new precedent. Doing language is like playing a game where the players consent to make up the rules as they go along.”
Steven Gambardella (Intelligence is Never Artificial)

In short, as Gambardella notes, computers can never think because language (and meaning) form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The computer (AI) will catch up with the brain (in certain respects) but it will only ever simulate thinking. (see Searle’s Chinese Room game) It is not the brain that *thinks*, anyway. That is simply one of many reductive assumptions at play in the majority of AI discourse.

Wittgenstein asked if it were possible for an individual to have a private language that only he or she could understand. The answer was no, finally. And it was *no* because our understanding of ourselves is publically shared, it is ‘learned’. We learn we are experiencing ‘pain’ or ‘erotic pleasure’. We learn through shared understanding, This goes a long way to explain the nature of sexual perversion (sic) actually. And sexual fetishes. Gambardella makes a cogent remark: “The machine has no form of life, it has a purpose instead.” And one of the issues Beller addresses (and a dozen others including this blog) is that humanity has forgotten this distinction. Many contemporary humans see life in purpose driven terms. Humans want to, it seems, believe that computers can think, that AI has no limits, and this because they desire to *be* machines. And THIS is really the issue here. (and it is also something that overlaps with much of the transhumanist project).

The old marketing chestnut: ‘when a service is “free”, you are the product for sale’ is pretty much an absolute truth. Like death and taxes.

“We are manipulated by photographs and programmed to act in a ritual fashion in the service of a feedback mechanism for the benefit of cameras.”
Vilem Flusser (Ibid)

Horia Damian

The modern individual (for Marx) coincided with the rise of markets in which the owners of commodities were able to exchange their commodities (the qualities of) for quantities of the general equivalent. Modern subjectivity is deeply wedded to this emergence. But the idea of human psychic evolution is complex. Children like to, often, go off by themselves and climb trees or explore terrain unfamiliar to them. City kids do their own version of this only in abandoned buildings etc. And younger children will often find a place, sometimes in a tree, or in a grotto, where they themselves feel they can’t be seen. And in their silence they day dream. This is a familiar experience from everyone’s childhood (I think everyone). Now, these younger children have less developed vocabularies. They cannot articulate what they feel. And again, childhood amnesia looms as a profound riddle. But older children may have enough of a vocabulary to explain or describe what they felt alone in that tree. But it is always but a very partial description. For that sense of freedom, of aloneness, and usually quiet, is the other part of religious experience. I have said before that religion comes out of theatre, not the other way round. But that is partial, too, for this aspect of taking oneself away from the world has deep roots that probably go back to the early hunter gatherer communities. For the child brings that experience back to the home or community. Silently. As men return from war, often silently, with a different and traumatic experience. Victims of violence bring that experience back to the home or society. And there are no words for this. And it is EXACTLY BECAUSE there are no words that it has such deep resonance. Is it possible that this unworded resonance is a deeper form of memory? Or rather another register of memory? The pre history of the child in a sense. Childhood amnesia is actually another kind of remembering?

It is possible that this silent emotion of freedom is a basic building block of the human. And to watch children with smart phones is disturbing, even if just intuitively, because we know, we sense, something is being stolen from them.

“Anyone who expects to be emancipated by technological hardware or by a system of hardware however structured, is the victim of an obscure belief in progress.”
Hans Magnus Enzenberger (Constituents of a Theory of Media, The New Media Reader)

Beller is right that Capital intercedes in all this, and I will add the Industrial Revolution crystallised potentialities already in the making. But when McLuhan (quoted by Beller) says the medium is the message, it actually is an echo of an idea of a lost epoch (per Stiegler). In both cases, the content is opaque or invisible, even. In fact, absence is the defining characteristic of contemporary life. The absent is the meaning. And if digitalization was pregnant in the the Enlightenment, from its inception, then the absent and missing is pregnant with the birth of the internet. Digitalization creates absence in a sense (and in one way the 24 frames a second and the flickering that occurred with film, pre-digital, is now another register of hypnotic with the effect found on inner illuminated computer screens). But this absence is not nothing. It is not emptiness, in the Buddhist sense. It is something lost. Something stolen. The caesura of living, in a sense. Except that it is constant. It is the contemporary version of haunting.

Josef Albers

Joanna Hoffman, form executive for Apple said “As I look at Facebook, for example, I keep thinking are they really that ignorant or is this motivated by something … darker than what appears?” she said on a panel with former colleagues of Apple’s offshoot technology company General Magic. While Hoffman said she had “enormous respect” for what Facebook had achieved she suggested certain aspects of the social media giant were “destroying the very fabric of democracy, destroying the very fabric of human relationships and peddling in an addictive drug called anger.”
CNBC (June 2020)

Absence breeds another relationship to emotions. The child on the tree (as I imagine him or her) has found something, not lost it. And here, here is where language has to be discussed. Language though is a near infinite topic. So, rather, language as it relates to human cognitive evolution, and to capital, domination, and madness. Now what the child has ‘found’ is a feeling. But what do we mean by ‘feeling’? An emotion? That is close, I think, for its not really an idea. And it depends, of course, on the age of the child.

“The commodification of the Enlightenment comes at a price. It turns progress and computational efficiency into a performance, a spectacle that occludes the real decisions and trade-offs behind the mythos of omniscient code.”
Ed Finn (What Algorithms Want)

Room in ‘ Haus on Kundmangasse’ designed by Wittgenstein and Paul Engelmann.

How does aesthetic appreciation change under the ubiquity of code and screen? Before that I want to touch another question briefly, and that is the overestimation of screen usage globally. It is very important to remember most of humanity still does not even own a computer, let alone sit in front of one for hours a day. In Finland, 91% of households have a computer. In Ghana it is 15%. In Morocco 27%. In Norway where I reside, it is 87%. In Mexico it is 41%. Now this is ‘households’ who have a computer. In Albania (figures are hard to come by) it is something like 22%. The discourse around internet hegemony tends to view the global screen habituation through the eyes of the wealthy West. End of digression. I wanted to return to this idea of childhood learning, and also to think about the much neglected field of childhood amnesia. The child in the tree, or in the cave or grotto, is in a situation. And children learn (to be a bit simplistic here) through situational learning. Children learn through associations with a situation they recognize. Objects are easier to identify, and tasks are more easily mastered if in a situation that is familiar. Classical theories assume that rules describe the objects in a category independent of situations. This is true also of classical prototype theories.

“Prototype theories tend to assume that unsituated abstractions represent categories (e.g., Hampton, 1979; Rosch & Mervis, 1975). Rather than being definitional, however, these abstractions are statistical, representing the most frequent properties across situations, with situation-specific properties canceling themselves out.”
Lawrence W. Barsalou (Being There Conceptually)

All of this stuff is pretty obvious, actually (meaning that learning is situational, it is always a scene, or as Bly said, a ritual space). But Wittgenstein actually introduces the idea of children at the very beginning of Philosophical Investigations. Stanley Cavell introduced this idea in chapter four of The Claim of Reason. More on that in a minute. One can raise a host of questions about childhood learning that will, if we choose, refer back to my child in the tree. Somewhere (in Cavell) it is asked what meaning does a young child attribute to the word ‘New York’ when there are no cities in the child’s life. This is important insofar as children tend toward magical criteria for their beliefs. In the case of New York, there are no cities the child has experienced, so it is part of an intuitive inference on the part of the child. But there may be no image associated with this inference. It is an inference to a space in the childhood cosmology in which absence is a perfectly acceptable place holder for a yet to be understood concept. Now, one might ask if a prolonged period of near enforced magical inference is an impediment to intellectual maturity. And second, do the technological advances (sic) of digitalization contribute to this prolongation. The answer to both questions is almost certainly yes.

Now the child in the tree is doing more than one thing. There is one level that is learning (situationally) and there is one level that is another order of remembering.

Verena Loewensberg

Allow me a short digression here regarding memory (especially in regards to AI):

“The perhaps most sensational aspect of false memories was described by Elizabeth Loftus and colleagues (e.g., Loftus 2003) who demonstrated the ease with which fake memories can be generated. In a typical experiment they asked subjects who had visited Disneyland before to evaluate advertisements and answer questions about their trip to Disneyland. The first group of subjects received an ad about the theme park that did not mention any cartoon characters. The second group read the same text while a four-foot-tall cardboard figure of Bugs Bunny was placed in the room. The third group received a fake Disneyland ad featuring Bugs Bunny. And the fourth, double-exposure group got both the fake ad and the cardboard cutout. Afterwards all participants were asked whether they had met Bug Bunny on their visit to Disneyland and whether they had shaken his hand. A remarkable 30 percent of subjects in group 3, and 40 percent in group 4 said that they indeed have met him while only eight percent of the first group, and four percent of the second, thought they had met the rabbit in Disneyland. It seems that the mere suggestion of the cartoon figure, either in a fake ad and/or as life-size cardboard figure was enough to convince many of the participants of having met him-although Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros. cartoon character and would never be featured at a Disney park.”
Alexander Riegler (Constructive Memory)

Riegler quotes Heinz von Forester ..

“If our memory worked like a computer’s data storage system, we would need a brain a mile in diameter, packed with nerve cells, to account for what we know… If our memory worked like the computer, we would never find our car [in the parking lot] because we never see things exactly the same way twice.”
Heinz von Foerster (quoted in Segal, The Dream of Reality, 2001)

Adam Elsheimer (Tobias and the Angel, 1607)

“The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.”
Salvador Dali (The Secret Life of Salvador Dali)

“Instead, then, of saying either that we tell beginners what words mean, or that we teach them what objects are, I will say: We initiate them, into the relevant forms of life held in language and gathered around the objects and persons of our world.”
Stanley Cavell (The Claim of Reason)

Interestingly Cavell uses the phrase ‘scenes of instruction’. And here again, introduces the ancient platform of the theatre. Not only does religion come out of theatre, but knowledge does as well. One cannot escape theatre. Ok, but has this to do with, more exactly to do, with AI? And I think that Beller’s essay is relevant here, too. But there is more to say on Cavell and Wittgenstein and my child in the tree. Young children when first learning words will focus on nouns. They make upwards of thirty percent mistakes, but usually this is because they have not learned the word for, say, skunk, and call it a cat instead. They have learned cat and its an exemplar for a certain category of animal. Children learn by using language.

Children can associate images in books or on screens with real life. A man with a grey mustache will be called ‘grandfather’. It is interesting that often the child’s real grandfather has no such mustache. But that is exactly where the complexities of language acquisition are expressed. Firstly, the tests for young children teach more about authority than they do language acquisition. Many child psychologists (see Laraine McDonough, Early Concepts and Early Language Acquisition: What Does Similarity Have to do With Either?) recognize that the infant or young child is flexible in what they identify partly in order to please the tester. One interesting finding though is that young children exhibit a taxonomic bias. In other words they are prone to seeing the completeness of objects (when using nouns) , rather than that objects role in thematic assemblages or routines. But one cannot escape the sense of the reductive in such studies. Watching my own three younger children learn two languages (their mother’s Norwegian and their father’s English) it is remarkable how easily they recognize that two systems are at work, firstly, but that because Norwegian is their primary language they must then ‘instruct’ me (the English speaker) when trying to communicate certain ideas. There is a performative aspect involved in how children give words meaning.

Edward Avedisian

“Does this entail that the word pain actually means crying? No, the verbal expression of pain replaces crying; it does not describe it.”
Sarah Beckwith (Voice of the Child in Cavell’s Philosophy)

Children learn through use, and in social contexts, with adults or simply with other children. If using a word one way seems not to ‘work’, then another is tried. There seems an almost hard wiring involved that allows for young children to understand there are numerous levels or registers of meaning when using language. But what is being learned in that tree, alone? I think the answer has to do with developing the deep spaces needed for more complex language forms. They are growing their inner philosophical space, as it were. A space, magical, where once the very young child put place holders. The space once invisible or empty that is gradually being filled. And this is therapeutic, I believe. And it is the digitalized world that many children exist in that tends toward squeezing out that space because it isn’t profitable, has no ‘purpose’, and cannot be measured. It is, in a sense, the naturally mystical engagement with the world. Did this first begin to get squeezed out with the invention of the printing press? Perhaps, but it certainly did with the advent of the Enlightenment. And with the advent of mass computation, computational capitalism, the squeezing out of the human is reaching a critical level.

“Psychoanalysis and semiotics propose that the world beyond the purview of language churns in accord with logics beyond those of daytime rationality (grammatology) and definitively shifts the whole Marxian notion of the depth- hermeneutic and the symptom from the appearance of things (the commodity) to language itself (the sign). Things and words have subterranean dynamics. The year 1895—roughly the advent of cinema, psychoanalysis, and structuralism—provides a convenient date to mark both this breakdown of language and its strategies to accommodate its newly precipitated dysfunction. Language ruptures to find images—images to which it can only affix more of itself. These ruptures in sign function, signs of the real, turn out to be signs themselves. Parapraxis, a pronounced breakdown in language, through which the unconscious emerges, requires the discourse that will be psychoanalysis to explain it. { } …the onslaught of the visual and the penetration of the life world by visual technologies can be thought of as the unconscious of the unconscious itself—the repressed media history that provided the template for the new insights into human nature that emerged out of both psychoanalysis and studies of sign function. Likewise semiotics, with its attention to visual texts as well as its meditations on the meaning of meaning that in one branch of its endeavors culminated in the analysis of the structure of myth as a second-order signifying system (Barthes), showed the ways in which signs could be deployed (and therefore denatured) by what we might today recognize as a program. Poststructuralism and deconstruction, despite the latter’s intensive emphasis on textuality, amounted to an elaboration of Lacanian *aphanasis* (the fading of the subject) by placing presence and being itself under erasure. Both the subject and existence could no longer be guaranteed by writing or speech, which, in being understood as moments of a specific technological formation, had become one and the same. One could say that in a visual-becoming-infomatic digital culture, the traditional forms of writing and its subjects were driven to the brink of extinction.”
Jonathan Beller (Ibid)

Marion Bradshaw, photography. (Solar eclipse, Maine, 1963)

Theatre, magic, religious ritual — the instinctive search for the sublime in children. But it is literally beaten out of them. If not physically, and it is physically too, but psychologically and emotionally. Such search is really the antithesis of what science does. Science is the debunking machine. Now, of course, in the age of *fact checkers* science is simply marketing, it is an organ of state domination. Take for example: people are sold on the dangers of too much sun. They buy suntan lotion. For centuries the idea of sun was one of purification, of health, of vitality and even of optimism. It was a symbol of affirmation. ‘On the sunny side of the street….’. But be sure to slather chemical lotion on you to stop that life giving light. Put a mask on, to, because other people might be on that street.

That solar eclipses, for example, hold such allure, such power in a sense, is reflected in art from earliest times. From antiquity to the present the disc, the circle, is repeated and recreated a nearly infinite number of times. From early medieval alchemical texts, to Pharaonic Egypt (in particular for Ra, the sun god), to early Buddhist illustrations or Hindu, early Chinese manichean cosmology, the circle, the symbol that represents a variety (near endless variety) of meanings is everywhere — but what it does, regardless, is attract the viewer. Kenneth Noland or Wojciech Fangor, or Tadasky — or Jack Goldstein, all of these men compulsively painted circles of one kind of another for most of their lives. The art of elemental forms, the spiritual practice, was exemplified by Hilma af Klint (and Emma Kunz, in a quite related manner). And yet, and yet, this sense of how sensual and appealing is the circle is regarded as superstition or worse. The *halo* (or Nimbus), the circular representation of the sun and its rays was the symbol of spiritual grace. It came out of pagan traditions, was avoided by early Christians, but by the 6th century it was an established symbol for Mary and Christ (and often Roman emperors ). The elemental austerity of Agnes Martin, or even Rothko, might be seen mirrored in a pianist like Bill Evans, or for that matter Glenn Gould. There is always something that suggests self sacrifice, if not self flagellation in such artists. It is also, as Agamben noted (and I quoted last post) that the ‘not’ being able to ‘not’ do something was the signature of tastelessness.

Tray for Rasulid Sultan al-Mu’ayyad Da’ud ibn Yusuf
14th century Yemen

Now in terms of aesthetics this also raises questions about completion. Knowing when a work is finished. Or when its not finished, but must be finished by allowing it not to be. I have said before that so much of 20th century modernist art (and 20th century philosophy and theory) was incomplete. Barnett Newman’s last unfinished canvases are among his greatest work. Perhaps because I know they are unfinished. There are writers who simply write too much. William Gaddis is one. Joyce Carol Oats is another obvious one. I think Clyfford Still painted too much. Or least painted too many big works. The later ideas would have been better expressed on cocktail napkins. And I admire Still a great deal. His best work is major. But I am digressing at some length here. The point is that mid 20th century fascism, in its most complete form with The Third Reich, was at least a hundred years in the making. And it has not gone away. It is has been digitalized. Much as your record collection has been.

“Just as an interest in labor should force us to rethink the logistics of media platforms and see them as technologies formed in the struggle between labor and capital and thus by and for the expropriation of labor, we must understand that the flesh, in Hortense Spillers’s sense of the word, is now the surface of inscription, the medium in the last instance, for all transmissions. Which is to say that for the 2 billion people who live on two dollars or less per day, it is their labor of survival that bears the burden of the messages considered to be worthy of transmission. The medium is the flesh of the world. Dialectically, the flesh is the other side of the vanishing mediator called money and, hence, necessarily, the other side of the digital.”
Jonathan Beller (Ibid)

Just allow me a couple additional observations on aesthetics in light of the digital, of science, and of instrumental thinking. And of childhood. Some artworks arrive at their necessity not by removing all that is unnecessary but by a route of deflection, by something that is, at least partly, uncanny. And today, with a society of narcissism, and regression, this regression has been streamlined — for the infantile wishes of the quasi adult is synchronised with images and expressions of power. Stuff like Top Gun: Maverick is like mainlining power crack. And it is also absence emerging as amusement park rides do. It is ONLY a ride, and with even less story than your average theme park roller coaster. There is no child in a tree in this universe because they have been napalmed. That the voice of Val Kilmer had to be digitally reconstructed (Kilmer suffered throat cancer and can no longer speak) is its own allegory for the deaths wish that is this film.

Livre de la Vigne nostre Seigneur, France . 1450

There is an entire industry (Hollywood) devoted to the representation of ‘nothing’. Of disguising nothing as something. Food deserts are a form of this. The psychic desertification of humanity is given material expression in the disintegrating core of global capital cities, in the unfinished buildings, the empty lots overgrown with weeds, in the strip malls of suburban America. In the US it is also expressed by the decrepit public transportation systems in most large cities. If the world was remade after WW2 in the image of the US, that image is now seen for the grimacing deaths head that it is. For this ‘nothing’ is really the space in which authoritarian submission takes place.

There is an interesting monograph by Clemens Driessen on the Nazi sanctioned project of back breeding the extinct wild Auroch (cattle breed).

“To forge their “reconstituted aurochs” they selected cattle breeds for their desired wild characteristics: one with the right horn shape; another with the correct coloration; a third for its anatomy and behavior; and so on. Lutz and Heinz were the sons of Ludwig Heck, the famous director of Berlin Zoo and became high-profile figures themselves. In the 1930s Lutz’s project gained patronage from the Nazi elite, in the person of Hermann Goering. His wild cattle became entangled with wider Nazi efforts to conserve natural landscapes and to reintroduce indigenous species to the occupied lands of Eastern Europe.”
Clemens Driessen (Back-breeding the aurochs: the Heck brothers, National Socialism and imagined geographies for nonhuman Lebensraum.)

The idea was– ” In conversation with a wider network of Nazi spatial planners, Lutz and other nature conservation officials argued for expanding “nonhuman Lebensraum. ” Lutz felt *Slavic* land planning had damaged the countryside and only an entire retrofitting of landscapes in accordance of Germanic myth would eradicate the impurities. This sort of grotesquerie is repeated today in much of (so called) ‘woke’ correctives.

Goering, Hitler, Baldur von Schirach & Martin Bormann, at Obersalzberg 1936

“The novel ecologies and future geographies imagined and created as part of the Heck brothers’ projects touch upon a series of themes, practices and disciplines that have come to concern historians of German science under National Socialism. These include zoology, animal breeding and eugenics, alongside nature conservation, spatial planning practice and geopolitical thought.”
Clemens Driessen (Ibid)

The Heck brothers efforts began with studying ancient cave paintings (those in Spain primarily). Goering was a rabid hunter and had even invented titles for himself such as Reichsjägermeister (Reich Hunt Master) and Reichsforstmeister (Reich Forest Master). There was a dream here, too, of emptiness — of removing the impure people from lands that had been subjected to a racialized agriculture (sic) and protecting these lands for the benefit of all (sort of) people. If this sounds a lot like the World Wildlife Fund, it should. The vision of a new Reich was entwined with the surface contradictions of Nazi theory…

“On the one hand National Socialism embraced modernity and instrumental rationality; something found in the Nazi emphasis on engineering, eugenics, experimental physics and applied mathematics { } On the other hand was National Socialism’s other embrace: a dark anti-modernity, the anti-enlightenment. Triumphed were tradition, a mythic past, irrational sentiment and emotion, mysticism, and a cultural essentialism that turned easily into dogma, prejudice, and much, much worse.”
Trevor Barnes & Claudio Minca (Nazi Spatial Theory: The Dark Geographies of Carl Schmitt and Walter Christaller)

The desired ’empty space’ to the east of the ‘Heimat’ was theorized by Schmitt and others and was to be implemented by the most modern of means; teletext, the most efficient trains and endless scientific forms of bureaucratic management and statistical analysis. As Barnes and Minca note, the “The rankest antimodernism and the highest forms of modernism were joined…” And this is perhaps much less of a contradiction than it at first appears.

Hilma af Klint

“When Germany invaded Eastern Europe in the following year, Lutz was in a powerful position to contribute to shaping plans for the eastern Germanic land. Six months after the occupation of Poland, he wrote in an article published by the official Nazi newspaper (the Völkischer Beobachter) that ‘landscape protection is Volk protection, since here Nature protection works for the most precious possession we have, our greater German Heimat’. Just as the true resurrection of the aurochs for Lutz was not a purely genetic affair, so the true German Volk is imagined as both the outcome of, and essential to, being rooted in the right landscape. Here the Nazi eugenicist project gets aspatial dimension, in which the right environment, achieved through landscape conservation and design, is just as important for Volkspflege as racial hygiene aimed at purging the hereditary base.”
Clemens Driessen (Ibid)

Much like the Green capitalists of today, the emphasis is not on people (certainly not on the indigenous peoples) but on myth, on the ‘land’, ideally void of humans.

An interesting aside to this is that Heinz Lutz was actually a member of the Communist Party, married to a Jewish woman, and was detained (as one of the first prisoners) at Dachau. He abandoned the plans of his Nazi brother Lutz relatively early on.

And the embrace of instrumental rationality by the Reich is the expression of control that is embedded deep within the Enlightenment idea and the anti-modernism was simply belief in a racialized myth of natural law. There was an acute determinism in Nazi logic, and in fact it was just a step in the evolution of logic itself, really. While the fantasies of Goering and the Reich for an idyllic eastern land where Siegfried could again hunt was not terribly far removed from Heidegger’s ideas of simple forest huts and mud caked boots of fantasy forest worker. Nazi art was necessarily going to be kitsch. And to understand the reasons for that I think is rather crucial.

“The strict immanence of the spirit of artworks is contradicted on the other hand by a counter tendency that is no less immanent:the tendency of artworks to wrest themselves free of the internal unity of their own construction, to introduce within themselves caesuras that no longer permit the totality of the appearance.”
Theodor Adorno (Aesthetic Theory)

Berlin Zoo Band, 1938 (Image of *Bobby* the gorilla on drum, resident of zoo)

The authentic recognition of form is not same as the appropriation of that experience of recognition. And honestly, there is no other philosopher to read on aesthetics other than Adorno. There are great critics (TJ Clark, John Berger, Ruskin and even Greenberg. Donald Kuspit, and perhaps a few others). But nearly no other philosopher: and this is my way of saying there will now be a few quotes from Adorno.

“If the spirit of art­ works flashes up in their sensual appearance, it does so only as their negation: Unitary with the phenomenon, spirit is at the same time its other. The spirit of art­ works is bound up with their form, but spirit is such only insofar as it points beyond that form.”
Theodor Adorno (Ibid)

Hilma Af-Klint’s recent show at the Guggenheim was the most visited show in that museum’s history. And there is no denying the force of her work, and also its heterogeneity. Af-Klint didn’t show her work during her lifetime. She was remarkably solitary and worked with a small circle of mediums and spiritualists in rural Sweden. (interestingly Rudolph Steiner came to visit and disapproved of the work. Told her never to show it. Another reason one grows ever more distrustful of Steiner…but I digress). It would be an interesting roundtable to investigate why Af-Klint’s work resists being kitsch, but that so many other self identifying ‘spiritualists’ are so awful. So something in her great refusal to paint for profit, her life of solitude (mirroring Agnes Martin in more than a few ways). There is a feminine sense of deep thought in Agnes Martin and it is there in Af-Klint, too. It simply never feels like a male discipline. Rothko does, Pollock does, a Donald Judd does. Those are masculine colours, masculine shapes. Now, to say this today is going to be criticized, I suspect.

Book of Miracles, 16th century, Augsburg , Germany

The spirit of artworks is bound up with their form but (per Adorno) it must always point beyond itself. Perhaps that is one description of Af-Klint. And Adorno then adds that one aspect of the spirit is that technological explanations are of no value for it, even when the work is examined for more than its technical achievement and even if context is rigorously presented.

“According to its own concept, spirit in artworks is not pure but rather a function of that out of which it arises. Those works that appear to embody such identity and are content with it are hardly ever the most important ones.”
Theodor Adorno (Ibid)

That idea of transcendent artworks that must always be aware of their own ascension — is an interesting point, I think. And those artists comfortable with themselves is another way of pointing out kitsch work. There is always the darkness at the edges of artworks. It occurs in various ways depending on the medium; in literature the story will often point to the story NOT told, in visual arts it is the spirit, for lack of another word. The shadow side, the nighttime. Adorno noted that Idealism rescued art (medieval divertissements, which is an astute aside, and one that today, 70 years since Adorno wrote this, a rather prescient foreshadowing. For today western culture has return to divertissements, only now they label them prestige TV events).

Jacob Elbfas ( after Urban Målare,) 1636. The Vädersolstavlan. Depicting ‘Halo effect’ optical event of 1535, Sweden.

To circle back to Wittgenstein, in the context of science, and of instrumental reason, and the ways science itself has shaped culture and art, let me touch on some of the Wittgenstinian (sic) analysis of language — for if the regression that was exemplified by the Third Reich is to be talked about, its important to see the two faces of science under National Socialism. The technical aspects of rocket science was, of course, poached by the US and USSR both after the war, and at the same time the bio/medical sciences were in the hands of sadists and madmen. The industrial engineers were the best in the world while the psyschological disciplines, and things like anthropology were corrupted with ideological irrationality.

And of course the labour that helped manufacture those engineering success stories was slave labour. The fascist project was ultimately one of quintessential irrationality. And yet, as today’s fascists like to say, the trains ran on time. The autobahn was beautiful and expertly designed. The real question is, then, how to examine what seemed like progress; the V2 rocket, the autobahn and the efficiency of mass extermination, but was part of a moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Today digitalization and the internet, social media, automation and AI, are heralded as progress, are marketed as shiny visions of a future utopia almost, while increasing numbers of former Facebook and Google executives confess to remorse and guilt about the harm these platforms and technology have caused. And here it is useful to remember the V2 rocket was neither reliable or accurate and was never even used. The death camps were a historical stain of unimaginable magnitude. And of course science also produced the Atomic bomb. One can counter with genuine stories of success…right? I could cite medical advances that have contributed to the prolonging of life. And yet.

Schist Figure of Buddha ( 3rd Century Gandhara)

Allow me this quote from Stanley Cavell, writing about Wittgenstein’s late book On Certainty (which is more a compilation of fragments and student memories and notes).

“Then what happens to my contention that when we are hesitant about asserting a concept it is either because we haven’t yet established its criteria for ourselves or because we haven’t got a perfect instance of it? Surely I am in full possession of the criteria for something’s counting as a chair; and surely there is no question here of this thing being a perfect example! And what happens to my contention that in neither case do we accommodate to the situation by saying “It’s certain” or “It’s almost certain”? With this “chair”, I feel not only that the uncertainty is in me, but that the fact, so to speak, is uncertain: anyone ought to realize that I am not in a position to say for sure, just as much as if the thing were in fact mostly hidden or in bad light. It is not certain, maybe very doubtful, whether it is one or not. The difference from the cases of stability and toothache is that what I am directly questioning here is not my or our criteria, whether *I* want to assert the concept of the thing; but what their criteria for it are. (So something is still hidden.)”
Stanley Cavell (The Claim of Reason)

Something is always hidden.

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  1. Regino Robainas says:

    Not So Randum, Perhaps Quantum Thoughts
    For a Friars’ Day

    Within the protected K castles of our
    dwellings, we can now watch reruns of
    Buffy, the Slayer in a channel suitably
    named Comet, and Ozark in Netflix, as
    well. And I may channel Angel in the
    former, since he attended the same
    Catholic prep gig during the 80’s that
    I did in the 60’s. And both school
    chumps share a spiritual/physical affinity
    with Her.

    Seriously (!) now, I like Buffy because
    shecuts through the pompous bullshit in
    her high school principal & Sunnydale’s
    too. Tonight we’ll be experiencing the
    9th. & 10th. episodes. Later in the night,
    I will not so much enjoy channeling

  2. Regino Robainas says:

    More to the root of your wonderful
    Garden cun Child essay, the statistical
    is a similar form to the discrete or
    digital in contrast to the continious or
    alive which is intrinsically anecdotal, which
    is equivalent to meaningless for the fascist
    near dead. A modest suggestion: Let’s
    climb courageously up the trees.

  3. George Mc says:

    “Gambardella makes a cogent remark: “The machine has no form of life, IT HAS A PURPOSE INSTEAD.” And one of the issues Beller addresses (and a dozen others including this blog) is that humanity has forgotten this distinction. Many contemporary humans see LIFE IN PURPOSE DRIVEN TERMS. Humans want to, it seems, believe that computers can think, that AI has no limits, and this because they desire to *be* machines. And THIS is really the issue here. (and it is also something that overlaps with much of the transhumanist project).”

    Which reminded me of Adorno’s wonderful comment:
    “Tenderness between people is nothing other than awareness of the possibility of relations without purpose.”

  4. George Mc says:

    “…Marx famously wrote that every great event in history occurs twice: ‘the first time as tragedy, the second as farce’. But in our post-historical present, tragedy and farce occur simultaneously. To take only the most obscene examples, the theft of two years of our children’s lives and the abandonment of our elderly to death alone in care homes and hospitals is a tragedy; the complete lack of medical justification for doing so is a farce. The credulity with which the most educated, wealthiest and technologically advanced generation in history has consented to the destruction of its civil rights is a farce; while the consequences for all of us of doing so is a tragedy whose extent we cannot, at this present time, foresee.”

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