Archives for posts with tag: Aesthetics

It is absolutely essential that Occupy Wall Street protestors reject the call to submit a list of demands.

Protestors don’t need to answer to anyone except themselves. They are a symptom of a diseased society. They’re taking to the streets to bring this disease to everyone’s attention, and, in particular, to hold up a mirror to those in power. If the current regime fails, it will be because the rift that finally has been brought to light in a concentrated effort will have made the system collapse under its own weight, because of its own internal contradictions. Everything is collapsing from within. The protestors are just the ones courageous enough to wake people up before it’s too late.

They are not using Us vs. Them logic. That is the exact opposite of what they are saying. They are saying that everyone is part of the same system. They are the 99% reminding the 1% that they too (the 1%) are part of the system. That’s why the protestors represent something Universal. They are speaking for everyone. Everyone is in this. The protestors have just brought to the light of day what others want to stifle and suppress and block from sight, what others are too cowardly or stupid or selfish to face. There are no demands that need to be submitted. The protestors’ responsibility is only to list their grievances, which are the grievances of an entire society.

To submit a list of demands would be to acknowledge the Us vs. Them logic, which has no place in this. It would be a cop-out, an unfair bargain — a purchase of a toxic asset, if you will. It is the responsibility of those in power to legitimate their rule, to justify the way they’re running things. That’s the protestors’ demand: for those in power to answer for themselves, to answer for the deterioration of the society we all share. Those in power have to answer to the protestors, not the other way around. Those in power should be submitting their suggestions for how they’re going to get us out of this (since they have the power to do so). That’s what the protests are fighting for. And that’s why they have to keep growing. The stronger the message, and the longer it’s delivered, the harder it will be to ignore. We’re all neighbors, after all.

As a final word, I want to comment on the remarks of one protestor, a 35-year-old history teacher, interviewed by the New York Times for this piece on the issue of demands. He quotes Frederick Douglass as saying, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” . . . . But #OWS has already made their demand. Mr. Douglass’ point is that people shouldn’t be lazy and wait for others to take action. “Demand” in that case meant “raise your fist in the air.” Abolitionists didn’t need to write up a list of demands. Their demands were well-enough “articulated” through action; they were there for everyone to see, out in the streets. Their demands were grievances, not suggestions (unless you count the suggestion to end the cause of the grievances — “we hate slavery; end slavery” — a pretty simple formula for making demands that #OWS has already used a million times over).

A demand is as much an act as a proposal. The burden of writing up a proposal is in the hands of those who created the situation, not the ones responsible enough to criticize it.

(I started thinking about this after I read Ernesto Laclau’s article The Philosophical Roots of Discourse Theory, in which he discusses hegemonic relations, specifically the categories of difference and equivalence. There’s obviously much more to be said on #OWS and hegemony).

Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) protestors continue to face police brutality. Now is an excellent time to think about the meaning of the institution of the police, and especially its relation to the political. In Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière describes these categories, based on a close reading of Plato’s Republic, as well as numerous other classical and contemporary texts. The difficulty of developing a theory of the political and of democracy cannot be overestimated. Rancière’s work is exemplary in this regard. The following is a basic description he gives of the logic of the police, and of their function, compared to those of the political.

The police enforce “patterns and procedures of ruling that are predicated on a given distribution of qualifications, places, and competencies” (53). This (re)enforcement is anti-political, because true politics negates the status quo. It is the exposure of a rift in society, a dispute within a hierarchy; and in this dispute there appears a re-distribution of social space. Democracy is a form government based on rule by the people, by anyone, regardless of qualification. And because there is no ultimate qualification, power is just temporary, “borrowed” from the people. In order to effectuate a change in power, political conflict is absolutely necessary; political conflict is thus the sine qua non of democratic government. Therefore if the police prevent political action in a democracy, then, paradoxically, they both reinforce and undermine the government, since while they are protecting the current governmental regime, they are also undermining democracy itself, the foundation of that government. The police are there to stifle democratic impulses.

“Police interventions in public spaces consist primarily. . .in breaking up demonstrations. . . .[Their] slogan is: ‘Move along! There’s nothing to see here!’. . .[They] assert that the space for circulating is nothing but the space of circulation. Politics, by contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’, of circulation, into a space for the appearance of a subject: the people, the workers, the citizens. . . .It consists in re-figuring space. . .It is the instituting of a dispute over the distribution of the sensible” (37). If we are to experience a democratic moment – the anarchic reframing of the sensible – then “power must become political;” that is, it must be challenged, disputed, loosened. And “for that to happen the logic of the police has to be thwarted by the logic of politics” (53).

Look at the photos from #OWS. The aesthetic features are virtually the same as any other protest, worldwide. Police line the streets, watching protestors march, waiting for them to cross the line, literally and figuratively. What police accomplish by giving protestors a specific space in which to protest is the “purification of politics [which] is actually its eviction.” It is a portioning of the sensible into categories which follow a mandated, authorized logic. This logic is what politics itself is meant to disrupt; “the political” is a superfluous “extra” part of social life that shows itself in acts of defiance against an official order.

Democracy in particular is a paradoxical form of government: those who govern have no particular qualification to govern; their qualification is the absence of qualification. They are “unqualified” precisely because in a democracy there is no one particular thing that qualifies someone to govern – whether age, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, intelligence/knowledge, or wealth. The obvious difficulty with this is that modern, actual governments want stability, rather than democracy. They have trouble thinking like the #OWS protestors and their supporters. They have trouble understanding how workers councils and general assemblies work. They have trouble understanding the sense of what all those luminaries who inspired revolutions had to say about running a democratic government. But it’s understandable that governments today don’t think these alternative forms of government are possible. They are stuck, like the rest of us, with huge, militarized nation-states and multinational capitalism. And this is simply unsustainable, at least if we want to avoid dictatorship. That is why what’s happening at #OWS (and around the world) is so important. People don’t really want reform. They want massive change. A revolution. The protestors in this photo put it best:

And so looking at the way the protests are going, one has to ask, why are the police resorting to violence? Perhaps this is because the democratic impulse is too strong. It is humiliating, in a way, to be with the police, watching democracy unfold in the streets and standing on the sidelines, allowing it to roll by; the police are in the absurd position in which their job is to watch the negation of their function. They are there to watch others reject the very purpose of the police, to watch protestors thwart the smooth functioning of the status quo. They are being told to obey orders that threaten their very existence. Sometimes this absurd inactivity becomes too much. Sometimes the contradictions become unbearable, and one’s purpose must be defended, even if it means resorting to violence and making illegal arrests en masse.

But in the same way, it is also humiliating to be a protestor, corralled by the police, watching as the police negate the reason for your protest, watching them reduce the meaning of this Event to a predictable, managed aspect of an illegitimate governmental arrangement, one which you’re attempting to change. I imagine the contradictions mount in the minds of many protestors who turn to violence. Frankly, I’m not sure what to think of this. If we believe in a true politics, if we want to be faithful to the idea of universality, then should we not reject the authority of the police outright? Should violence not be a legitimate form of demonstration, if that violence is directed against the police of the ruling regime?

I have serious doubts about the wisdom of groups like Anonymous. Standing behind the banner of a mass movement, of populism itself, is a cop out. Anonymous has no Cause, except anonymism itself. This can be formulated alternatively as the fight for non-identity, for nothingness, for symbolic death. It is the fight for the pure anti-thesis. The movement has no leader, not even local, distributed ones. It’s hard to see what new program it could put in place, other than a destructive, pseudo-democratic “blind eye,” which, in what is perhaps the greatest irony, recalls the ubiquitous personification of The Market as the ultimate Leader and decider of our fate.

Hegemonizing a universal means standing for a particular cause and asserting it as universally relevant. (See this article by Jacques Rancière on defining the political). The way I think of it, taking to the streets with the message of anonymity is the purest form of being, versus thought, in Lacan’s formulation of the two — “I think where I am not, therefore, I am where I do not think.”

All that is just to say that standing for universality itself is disingenuous. It is a dissimulation of the fact that one stands for nothing in particular, or, rather, just the whole series of all the particular interests involved, instead of some particulars taken to be Universal. Exemplary on this point is a recent Daily Show video in which Michael Moore reduces the Occupy Wall Street movement to a variety of subcultures, sub-interests (or sub-speech-genres, as Rob puts it), not — and of course we should be ashamed for even thinking this! — any one, universal demand. Standing for everything is an excuse to stand for nothing. This is all certainly relevant to the discussion of JJ’s piece on Post-Populism as well, where you’ll find Rob’s point about speech genres in the comments.

History reaches the pinnacle of irony in movements like Anonymous. They are no one, and yet they are everyone; they have no cause, and yet everyone is participating. The properly universal, political, and revolutionary position is the exact opposite: we are everyone, and yet no one; we are nothing but our Cause, and thus we are no person at all (even the leader is driven not by personal interests but by the Cause of the movement); yet we are a Universal movement, and as such we stand for every particular person (rather than every particular cause/interest).

An interesting, and perhaps unnoticed, implication of the shrinking away from any Cause today is that the nature of humility has changed. People shift their skepticism from themselves onto the Cause itself; whereas people used to be skeptical about their own importance in a society in which the highest form of life was to sacrifice for a Cause outside oneself, today we have the opposite, such that people are skeptical about nothing but the Cause. I take this point from Orthodoxy, a book by G. K. Chesterton; a brief series of quotes on this can be found here.

But the greatest insight to draw from anonymist protestors is quite different. I’ll take a page from Badiou’s book. The being-multiple of the situation in the streets (the whole set of possibilities) has reached such a full state of expression that one can easily read off from the situation its key motivation: we see protestors everywhere shouting about their problems with the financial industry and a host of other phenomena that can point to nothing other than capitalism as their source. The simplest way to put this is that capitalism is now THE elephant in the room, except in this case, not everyone sees it.

Contra Moore, Occupy Wall Street is obviously — as even the name indicates! — NOT a fight for nothing in particular. It is a movement to end financial speculation. At its best, it could become a movement to end capitalism itself.

The ultimate challenge to the Anonymous movement as a political movement can be summarized in the simple question, Could we ever elect an anonymist leader?

Check out the following article on neuroscience’s latest challenge to the philosophy of art (aesthetics):

It’s true that the brain systems for aesthetic and non-aesthetic appreciation aren’t distinct. But nothing in the brain is “distinct.” That’s a commonplace.

There’s a lot more to our appreciation of art than the correlation of brain structures. It’s terrible how journalists oversimplify philosophy and neuroscience, colluding the two as if they were actually comparable, as if they were talking about the same things. Evolution can’t do interpretation and analysis for us.

“As much as philosophers like to believe that our brains contain a specialized system for the appreciation of artworks, research suggests that our brain’s responses to a piece of cake and a piece of music are in fact quite similar.”

The “wit” of the writer’s last sentence is a cliche joke. Quips using reductionistic appraisals of basic facts like these are supposed to deal a cold blow to the cheesy caricature of a philosopher. But philosophers today don’t think that the brain areas are distinct. That’s a straw-man if I’ve ever seen one. In truth, these statements belie a total misunderstanding of the philosophical enterprise, and of any philosophical position in particular.

For however “cutting edge” this latest experiment is, it’s reading philosophy from the Dark Ages.

Really, though, what are they trying to prove?

I’ve studied neuroscience in great depth. I’ve done my own experiments in the cognitive science department at UC – San Diego. It’s a joke the conclusions people try to draw from experiments like these. Almost everything you’ll read in the neuroscience literature takes advantage of the common obsession with neuroimaging. This has taken on the derogatory monicker of “spotology” in philosophy circles. But think about it: what does it matter that we can show which areas of the brain light up (producing “spots” on the fMRI scanner’s monitor) when we do certain things? How is that at all astounding? Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of very useful, insightful knowledge coming out of experiments like these. But the implications of the results are drastically altered in the media. It’s bad enough that the average person can’t understand basic scientific and statistical principles — like the difference between correlation and causation — but it’s worse that the media plays on this and exaggerates and overdramatizes the results of the most basic experiments, making it easer for readers to draw mistaken conclusions. It’s scary how easy it is to derail educators’ attempts to get people to think intelligently, and tragic that the media so successfully convinces the public of the truth of reductionistic accounts of life.

In The Fragile Absolute, starting with the chapter “Coke as objet petite a,” Žižek discusses the advent of modernist art. When modernism comes to self-awareness, it is said to enter the realm of the postmodern; thus postmodernism is a stage of modernism. When modernism falls from its lofty heights into the postmodern, anything that reaches the level of a “transgressive excess” cannot any longer have its shattering effect on the values of the age, since these values are no longer so clear. Because the transgressive excess does not have the same shock value as it once did, the excess can be integrated into the traditional spheres of artistic exchange. Take as an example the fact that if you visit NYC, you won’t have any trouble finding a museum that features a piece of trash as a work of art.

That a piece of trash can be elevated to the level of a sublime object, an object of art, bares witness to the cultural reality of the “ever-present threat” that our noblest values will reveal themselves to be nothing more than pieces of shit. This is not simply to say that what we believe is actually a fiction. Rather, the threat includes the risk that our society as a whole cannot maintain its would-be values, that, for example, the government won’t follow through on its promise of justice to the people. Thus the artist’s desperate attempt to answer the question, Is anything sacred anymore? Will we (and I, with this work) accomplish anything of value?, takes the form of the discourse of the hysteric, of the scientist, the investigator and gad-fly philosopher: each of these elusive values is none other than the elusive Lacanian objet petit a, a nothing that captures the gaze of those who long for there to be, in the end, some actual substance in the object.

Thus whereas premodern (traditional) artists attempted to fill the place of the sacred Thing – approaching it, as it were, asymptotically – postmodern artists have first to probe for the mere existence of the Thing, the Void or Place which would theoretically embody the unimaginable Whole, absolutely pure Value itself – beauty, courage, whatever one wants to represent. And because one can no longer take for granted that the value is there as something the community believes and expects to be shown by the masterful artist, the artist’s task is to probe for the existence of the Thing, and, in the process, to provoke and inspire the audience to reveal and acknowledge both their belief in and reliance upon a value of some sort.

That is to say, by placing a piece of trash in the gallery, the artist provokes the viewer, and the viewer responds with a question – Why is this here? Is this gallery not a sacred place? Is there not something that this artwork should embody? And what is it, exactly, that we are supposed to imagine upon viewing this artwork? The artist’s task is thus “to make sure that this Place itself will ‘take place,’” that the gallery will have a meaning (25).

Put simply, the premodern artist had an ideal to shoot for, whereas the postmodern artist doesn’t. Imagine it this way: before, there was a universal standard of beauty and other artistic ideals, whereas today we have fragile, elusive, fleeting instances of these ideals that don’t ever reach consensus.

On to the titular topic: dubstep is the music of our age. It is the shit of musical art. Other radical subgenres merely take to the extreme their parent-genre’s original musical characteristics. Think of punk, metal, and the like: these are desperate attempts to purge everything “pure” and “wholesome” about original rock music, and for that very reason, they remain passionately attached to their parents; it is as if the sole purpose for their performances were to scream “we are NOT that.” Yes, punk rock has a legendary history. It is political, revolutionary music. But dubstep goes further: it is a species of post-apocalyptica. (The gas mask epitomizes the dubstep aesthetic). As such, dubstep heralds the emergence of something other-worldly. It is radically new, independent of any previous generation of music – since it uses new instruments, its sounds literally haven’t been heard before. Thus it is beyond expectation.

And yet for however expansive and awe-inspiring it can be, it isn’t quite pleasant. That is to say, it is far from high culture. Dubstep’s entrance on the musical scene is like the debut of an ugly, scandalous exhibit at the Guggenheim. Pop music, on the other hand, distills to a cheap plastic imitation the aesthetic values expressed in a more sophisticated way by the traditional genres of high-culture art; the simple purity of an autotuned voice is also a form of beauty – thus, pop is kitsch. And of course, dubstream is likewise kitsch.

Considering the violent undertones in some dubstep music, it’s worth asking whether the emergence of the genre reflects the same currents underlying the recent concrete manifestations of Hegel’s “abstract negativity.” Žižek has written about this kind of violence in response to the London riots, here. And after all, West London is the birthplace of dubstep (see artists like Mala, Skream, Caspa, Rusko, and Chase & Status).

(As an aside, dubstep music often features randomly interspersed clips from TV shows and movies, or even just words that originate in the song itself. It is as if dubstep musicians were channeling the media onslaught we come up against every day into their works. In fact, many of these same works have as their principle musical feature a very basic melody/harmony set with a simple “wobble” bass and a variable, occasional treble line. This is a quality reminiscent of ambient music, and yet, simultaneously, we hear multiple intrusions of clips taken from various media, breaking up the omnipresent, streamlined, bulging waves of bass).