12 September 2006

Infinite Little Somethings



Malevich.

Ingrid Schaffner's essay, Doing Nothing, is a little hard to link to, but kind of worth the hunt. Click here, then find pages 34-40 and be sure to click on the little icon that makes the text appear at a readable size.

She is writing about her group exhibit, The Big Nothing, at the ICA in 2004, which framed modernism in terms of leisure and "doing nothing". This makes art into a reductive quest for essence. Schaffner's essay is interesting because it puts current practice into historical perspective. Contemporary art continues in the Gertrude Stein vein, focusing on leisure and nothingness, I think for the same reductive reasons. But the structure of this relationship--the individual's relationship to the world and truth--has utterly changed. No wonder art is suffering from a relevancy problem!



McQuilkin.

I don't know about you, but I look out on a world that denies essence-finding, that is not about Truth, that is not about doing nothing at all anymore--doing nothing has become a manner and a trap. Doing nothing is what the credit card companies expect you to do when they raise your interest rate to 30% for no good reason, and what the cellphone company expects you to do when they seem to bury an incorrect $15 charge inside the thicket of your bill every single month. Doing nothing is SUVs and corn syrup and not understanding what the WTO even is. And doing nothing doesn't even really exist! People work too much, take work emails at home and spend way too much time on little portable devices that require you to divide your attention. A small number of powerful people are depending upon the powerlessness of doing nothing, not so that they can directly enslave you, but so that you can enslave yourself using their products: "exotic mortgage", useless health insurance paired with get-tough bankrupcy law, exurban lifestyle.

That ambiguity--the surreal quality of America today--is all about the inappropriateness and fakeness of our leisure. What can we do to save America from terrorists? Go shopping! All the blackberry ads promised that this thing came with a hammock and a beach!

What is one powerless individual to do in the face of this madness? Do something. Something that admits your powerlessness, the fact that the world is nodal--not monolithic.



Shane Hope.

There is no big thing to uncover, no one Truth to relate to. The fact is that power is in a million little do-nothing bargains that are designed to please you as they enslave you. It's Brave New World, not 1984, and nobody is centrally organizing the new corporate feudalism--there is no Them. Freedom and truth, as well as their absences, are transactional in this landscape.

There is power in this confusion, but the power is not about ego and direct relationships with the big anything.

17 Comments:

Anonymous Steven LaRose said...

I just spent 45 minutes writing:
"I second that motion".

12 September, 2006 14:35  
Anonymous Eric Larsen said...

Hi, Deborah Fisher—it’s me again, Eric Larsen. I try to peek in now and again to see what you’re up to, and it’s never failed yet to be interesting. But, ahem, ahem, I must say one thing off the bat. I quote: “There is no global warming solution.”
Now don’t YOU go around any more accusin’ ME of despair!
Still, I do know that you go on to say in parentheses “(there are very easy solutions for climate change, but they aren’t happening)”.
Okay, and there’s the rub, right? If they’re “not happening,” THEN what?
It’s a lot like your remark about Berman and me (you flatter me in that pairing): “The reason Berman and Larsen’s arguments are comforting but hollow is because they attempt to address the cause of the ambiguity, and yet the ambiguity persists.”
Humph. Aren’t you the one in despair here, and also the one using false logic? If a doctor treats an illness and the illness persists and the patient dies, what does that mean? Well, it could just be that the treatment unsuitable, insufficient, or ineffective. But your logic suggests that if the first treatment failed, and there were to be another illness that “persisted,” the doctor shouldn’t treat it AT ALL.
You’d be responsible for dead guys whom nobody’d even tried to save at all, and I’m sure that’s not a position you’d either embrace or approve.
But you get into this kind of logical jam, just like ANGB argues over and over, by saying things as if they were whole truths when in fact they’re half truths.
Example:
“That’s the problem with thinking. Any thinking person’s response to the world we are living in today is fuck it, because the world we live in is totally ambiguous and irrational, and this is getting worse not better.”
I’ll escalate now from “humph” to “HARUMPH.” There’s no way a “thinking person” can accept your half-truth as a universal—and I’m sure you know that, really. You’re feeling frustrated, you’re feeling pissed, you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re feeling used, exploited, pummeled, and down, AND you’re certain that millions of other people are feeling the same ways and attributing the feeling to the same “causes,” and so you conclude that “the world we live in is totally ambiguous and irrational, and this is getting worse not better.”
Even you yourself have denied this statement. That lady on the stoop you wrote about a ways back—SHE isn’t “totally ambiguous and irrational.” In fact, there are bucketloads of things in life and the world that aren’t ambiguous and irrational in the ways you’re talking about. I’ll grant that MOST things may be so, or certainly seem so. But all? Never.
And the really bad thing is that your absolutism leads you straight to blindness, despair, and defeat. It’s no accident that I stuck in “blindness” there, because I’m the author of A Nation Gone Blind, I’m still trying to promote the book in a world that’s simultaneously trying to ignore it, AND I still think that what it argues is true.
Listen to your, Deborah Fisher’s, utterly, horribly, defeatist words:
“There is no big thing to uncover, no one Truth to relate to. The fact is that power is in a million little do-nothing bargains that are designed to please you as they enslave you. It’s Brave New World, not 1984, and nobody is centrally organizing the new corporate feudalism—there is no Them. Freedom and truth, as well as their absences, are transactional in this landscape.”
Deborah Fisher, you have the deep and lithe intelligence of the Makerthinker, yet you speak here like someone from the first chapter of A Nation Gone Blind. Oh, but yes, yes, yes, there’s a “them.” And oh, yes, there’s an enemy. Among us right now and in our very midst are traitors to the commonweal AND to the specific-most nature of our daily world, criminals bent upon ill, leaders bent upon murder, looting, and death, even well-intended graybeards who, underneath, are life-denying and satanic.
I could name names, give addresses, list phone numbers, show photographs. And maybe fairly soon I’ll start doing just that, though admittedly it’s a dangerous business and not to be undertaken lightly or without thought of consequence.
But there’s something absolutely certain. Only one thing in the universe can make “them” happier than they are right now, happy at not being exposed, not being fought against, and not being destroyed. That one thing is their hearing it said, by us who should be their natural and unremitting enemies, that in fact “they” don’t even exist.
A last note. You write that you’re “interested in artistic dialogues that prolong and nurture ambiguity, and do not fight to resolve it.” Me too. But not “them.” “They” hate ambiguity. If they could—and if we don’t stop them they will—screw us and the earth in such a way that every last trace of if will be gone. Brave New World, uh huh.

14 September, 2006 15:57  
Anonymous steven larose said...

Again,
I just spent 45 minutes writing:
"I second that motion".

and another 25 minutes wondering why there was something in both your comments that missed my mark. I agree that there is a profoundly depressing take to: "Any thinking person’s response to the world we are living in today is fuck it," I disagree with deborah here. I would even argue that; ONLY people who consider the glass half-full are thinking. Or, at least responsibly, they are trying to top the glass off. I still think that the enemey is not those draining the glass. It is those of us not filling it.

14 September, 2006 18:24  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Hmmm. I seem to have written something obtuse.

I thought I was writing a hopeful little meditation on the power of kinetic thinking.

When I say "thinking," and assert that the thinking response is despair, I thought I was doing two things:

1. Distancing myself from the act of (rational, mea culpa) thinking, because art is not particularly rational and is often hampered by rational thought.

2. And in so doing, find a space in which despair is not only impossible but not necessary.

EL, it's always great to see you. I am writing from a really specific perspective. I am (quixotically) working to figure out how to talk about kinetic thinking. You are attaching values to these words that are giving my words a lot of English that I didn't intend.

I stand by what I said. I said that it is easy to despair--the rational consequences of the messes splayed out before us are staggeringly bad. Bad things can and probably will happen. Reading the paper requires an appreciation of schaudenfreude--what with all these slow-motion train wrecks happening a little bit more every day.

That does not mean that I personally despair. To keep up the tradition of professional metaphors, if I were lifting a really heavy thing with a crane, it would be my job to utterly assess exactly what could go wrong and to see and acknowledge each of these rational consequences.

If I didn't do that, someone could die.

But if I believe in every one of these consequences, or if I take them too seriously, it's even more possible that someone could die because I would get all nervous, and it's also possible that nothing would ever get moved because an accident is always waiting to happen--nothing is ever safe.

(this would be despair)

Eventually, I would have to take a little leap of faith and lift the heavy thing, even though there is a slight chance that something bad could happen.

That leap of faith, that ambiguous space, is exaclty what I am talking about. You are assuming that I don't want to try, and that is the exact opposite of what I am saying.

What I am saying is that every time I personally make anything I want to keep, I encounter this ambiguous space that makes very little rational sense. And that working with that ambiguous space and not against it has serious creative payoff for me, because this non-rational space makes me ask questions that I wouldn't ask if I was working toward the rational conclusion.

It's all in the pictures--the one huge paper plate sculpture? With its strange new logic that could only be derived from a thorough investigation of all the stupid shit you can do with paper plates? Versus the comparatively bland stacked-cup topography?

Stacked cups? Everyone knows that cups are begging to be stacked. Done. Over. The rational conclusion.

What I am saying is that you can look at a problem, be it paper plates or the powerlessness of American citizens, or plastic cups, and you have choices:

1. Be rational. My vote is somewhat irrelevant and plastic cups like to stack. So I can either continue with the sham or stay home on election day.

Tall stacks or short stacks.

In a sculpture, it's not very interesting. Stacks stack on the floor, creating a kind of boring, monolithic presence, and they vary in height, creating a topography. It's the first thing you'd reach for if you were given a half an hour with some cups. They like to stack.

In politics, the stakes are higher. Okay, so the evidence (supreme court deciding election, Diebold, Ohio, Kennedy's Rolling Stone article) tells me that this isn't the democracy we concieve it to be. I could be rational and stop voting, stop participating, stop reading the paper, or I could be valiant and keep doing my civic duty despite all this evidence.

What I am saying is that there is a paper plate solution that makes continued action more than a function of idealism or delusion. That it is possible to accept the ambiguity of the evidence and move with it instead of against it. That it is possible to be civically minded while not knowing whether democracy is dead yet or not. And that this state of not knowing is powerful because it lets in all the information but does not jump to any conclusions about what all this information means. When you've just got the information and are not hampered by its meaning, sometimes all these new solutions appear that you would never ever see otherwise.

In order to do that, it's important to be able to defer utterly to the situation on the ground. To go back to the crane metaphor, a guy I work with likes to say when he is working in that ambiguous state:

"Let's lift it really slowly."

And that means that there is at least some evidence that points to an undesired outcome, but that in order to figure out how to lift the thing at all, it needs to be lifted. The ambiguous state must be prolonged.

What I like about working with this colleague is the way he acknowledges that he is working without knowing what he is doing. He is an amazing problem solver.

What I am saying is that if the world was made up of Makerthinkers--who I think probably share that relationship to ambiguity or a suspension of rational thought--there would be no despair about fucking up the whole Middle East or the whole planet.

Instead of provoking fear, denial, anxiety or despair, the newspaper's surreality would mean that it's time to lift it slowly and find out what happens.

14 September, 2006 20:12  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I have more to say, Eric Larsen. I have questions.

Why do you think it is defeatist to say that there is no one big truth to uncover? That there is no wizard behind the curtain? No conspiracy?

Why must there be an enemy that you can name and provide photographs of? An us and a them?

This kind of binary thinking plagues your book and makes for all kinds of fallacious arguments (ie, older people are smarter and write better than younger people as a function of when they were born) and half-truths (your writing about media, while it feels satisfying and describes the symptoms well, has nothing to do with how advertising really works)

You are the one ascribing defeatist status to my words, Eric Larsen. I find it extremely liberating to be loosened from the grip of this idea that there is one big Truth to find. I find that it much more closely matches the empirical evidence I have gathered in my oh-so-short lifetime to say that truth does not hover over us but is transactional, is embedded in every single action that every single person undertakes.

Truth is bullshit--it's one person telling you what to think. But myriad truths come from me, and from you. And those truths can be worked with.

Even if democracy is a sham.
Even if I am a different color or gender than you are.
Even if I am powerless and you are powerful.

And that is hopeful, not despairing. Don't you see that? Don't you see the difference between Truth and truths?

15 September, 2006 09:43  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>I find it extremely liberating to be loosened from the grip of this idea that there is one big Truth to find.<

My young friend, there's no need to trouble yourself with looking for Truth. Ideas only can get you so far. Truth will find you, as long as you are open to it and more likely when you least expect it.

>Truth is bullshit--it's one person telling you what to think.<

That odor is not from truth, it's the stench of the academy.

Lose a spouse.
Do something no one thought you could.
Watch parents die.
Get cancer.
Beat the odds.
Make huge mistakes.
Be homeless.
On and on...

One person telling you what to think? Again, "If you understand, the world is as it is. If you don't understand, the world is as it is." Pay attention to the seemingly quotidian and you might modify your definition. It may be helpful to think less and live more. Or more fully.

15 September, 2006 13:00  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Anonymous,

Please read what I write before slapping me with my own argument. And if you find that you must get all personal and assume that I have experienced no loss or hardship and tell me to stop thinking again, you have to at least stand by your comments with some sort of identity, you cowardly little bitch.

While I understand that the difference between the word Truth and the word truths is slim and this is an age of skimming text instead of reading, the whole point of making a distinction between a Truth that other people tell you (a structure or template for how one should think and see) and transactional truths we share is exactly so that the "quotidian" can be mined for knowledge.

Perhaps you are saying that this "is-ness" or network of transactional truths cannot be described, that it can only exist in its wholeness. And that's very buddhist of you indeed. But you know, I am not a buddhist and I don't have to be, and we can discuss this like adults.

Do you want to have a discussion about is-ness? If so, stick around. I am not in this for the fan club and would really prefer to be disagreed with.

But I am going to delete any future comments that are as disrespectful as the one above, and I can't help but mention that humility and generosity are qualities the Buddha reveres greatly. I am not writing to be right, I am writing out of curiosity. I am not some pompous dickhead who won't listen to anything but pain.

There was no call for the meanness of spirit.

15 September, 2006 15:14  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ouch!

You have my apology, despite the name-calling.

Maybe I needed a smackdown. Maybe not. I'll take a look after the swelling goes down.

15 September, 2006 15:51  
Blogger dharmabum said...

Oh, by the way-

15 September, 2006 15:55  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Anonymous,

Apology accepted.

And since you apologize for telling me what to do with my life and mind, and for telling me how much pain I have not endured yet, I am sincerely sorry that I called you a cowardly little bitch.

Honestly, I was going to come home and apologize for calling you a name regardless. Name calling is childish--the judgemental and personal nature of your post rather knocked me off my feet.

Let me state again that I enjoy disagreement and am not assuming that I am right or anything. Please feel free to disagree...

preferably more civilly in the future.

15 September, 2006 18:05  
Blogger dharmabum said...

Criticisms noted and under review. Dharmabums can learn too. I'm embarrassed at how I came off. have a nice weekend.

15 September, 2006 18:14  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Holy crap your subject matter is interesting!!!

I think I see your perspective better now, coming off weird is a limitation of the medium. Let's keep talking.

15 September, 2006 18:22  
Anonymous Eric Larsen said...

It’s me again, Eric Larsen. The passion on your blog, Deborah Fisher, is extraordinary, rare, almost miraculous, a treasure to see. I haven’t found many places—maybe none—where this kind and extent of talk-thinking is going on, either in print or online. And of course it comes from the Makerthinker concept, and that, so far as I can see, derives and arises mainly from you. I personally owe you a big debt of gratitude. One of the reasons I wrote ANGB was out of hunger for this kind of richness, it being now almost totally—drop the “almost”—absent in literary academia and in literary publishing.

I must have been more churlish that I realized in my “scold” about you and your comments about truth. I’m glad I took ’em wrong, and I apologize for what must have been my condescending prof’s tone. But what happened is that I felt betrayed because of what I thought you meant—wrongly, I now see.

I’m positive that you and I are in fact on the same side and trying to win the same war (condemn that metaphor if you want, but for me it’s accurate, a matter of life and death).

Here’s what you asked (or said to) me. I quote because I need it in front of me in order to talk about it:

“Why do you think it is defeatist to say that there is no one big truth to uncover? That there is no wizard behind the curtain? No conspiracy?” And then: “Why must there be an enemy that you can name and provide photographs of? An us and a them?”

I’ll have to quote the rest so I can talk about it all at once:

“This kind of binary thinking plagues your book and makes for all kinds of fallacious arguments (ie, older people are smarter and write better than younger people as a function of when they were born) and half-truths (your writing about media, while it feels satisfying and describes the symptoms well, has nothing to do with how advertising really works).
“You are the one ascribing defeatist status to my words, Eric Larsen. I find it extremely liberating to be loosened from the grip of this idea that there is one big Truth to find. I find that it much more closely matches the empirical evidence I have gathered in my oh-so-short lifetime to say that truth does not hover over us but is transactional, is embedded in every single action that every single person undertakes.
“Truth is bullshit—it's one person telling you what to think. But myriad truths come from me, and from you. And those truths can be worked with. . . . And that is hopeful, not despairing. Don't you see that? Don't you see the difference between Truth and truths?”

Yes. I do. And I embrace it. In fact, I’ve devoted my whole life to it, and another reason I wrote ANGB is that for most of that life I’ve seen it progressively attacked, harmed, diluted, pummeled, and made unpopular and for many people impossible—resulting in The Age of Simplification. That “simplification,” the enemy of me in my war against it, is exactly what you think I’m in favor OF, namely, “that kind of binary thinking.”

That’s what ANGB and I are against, just as you are, thank god. That’s what’s wrong with all those pseudo-writers in chapter one; they’re binarians and therefore they can’t see and can’t think about anything more complex than singularity or at most duality. And it’s the enormous and loathsome enemy in chapter two, the same kind of simplification that has destroyed literary studies AND has destroyed or is trying to destroy people’s ability to understand, perceive, or love literature or any other form of art-art: because the Age of Simplification works hard to bring people, the whole population, to the point where, no, they CAN’T “see the difference between Truth and truths.”

Remember all the stuff in ANGB about Candide and Oedipus and about how they—and all other real, lasting, true art-art—are passionate in showing that the binary is destructive (nobility vs. the low-born, or intellect as superior to instinct), and that if binary-thinking rules, tragedy, loss, and disaster will follow. I can argue that, for me (and for Gore Vidal, by the way), very likely the most destructive two human beings ever to have lived are Plato and Jesus Christ, because they wrenched away and stole the holistic world of the ancients (from Homer to Euripides and a bit further) and in its place stuck the hideously dual, binary world of thought that says spirit trumps flesh by a great big long shot, and, worst of all, that therefore death trumps life. Heaven is the only place to be. Now THERE’S a place where it’s true to say that “Truth is bullshit—it's one person telling you what to think.”

Interesting as they are historically and in many, many other ways also, at the root of it all Plato and Christ are the most ruinous dualists or binarists the world has. And they both HATED art-art, big time.

But certainly you can forgive me for mistaking what you mean when you first said “Truth is bullshit.” I see the whole position now, and share it. I’m reminded of William Blake (and of Whitman, and E. Dickinson, and Keats, and Virginia Woolf, and, and, and) when you go on to say that “myriad truths come from me, and from you.” Those are words that could have fallen from the lips of Blake himself, and many very, very similar ones did.

Deborah Fisher, I’m with you not in Rockland, but in many-truth, in Makerthinker, in the universal, the unknown, the possible, in art-art. I’m also with the “let’s lift it very slowly” guy. You’re doing the real work. Keep it up. I swear, it’s what I’m trying to do, too. On the aesthetic, the art, the spiritual, the human side, I mean. Politics are another problem—that’s where the addresses and phone numbers come in—and maybe we can talk about that later.

My thanks to you.
Eric Larsen
P.S. Also, the thing about being smart because you’re old—that’s complete merde and not what I mean. Good god, it’d mean that YOU’RE dumb because you’re not past age x. ALL I mean is that the evil, bad-guy-binarians (both political ones and arts ones) have had an easier and longer and more unbroken shot at those born AFTER the binary age was in place than those born before it, who MIGHT remember things that could give them contrast. I offer nothing but praise for intelligence wherever I see, especially in the likes of you, who have beaten and are beating the odds, a harder thing than I’ve ever had to do (until now). If you want to see a real-life example of a falsified intelligence, a really simplified child-adult “intellectual” at work, peek at this essay http://www.ericlarsen.net/foodforthought3.html .

16 September, 2006 12:19  
Blogger dharmabum said...

I'm digesting EL's post now, but briefly:
I'm not a Buddhist but parts of it are working for me lately.
My tone was discourteous and inaccurate. To do it over again I would have written in the first person. Live and learn.
I am concerned about the concept of 'truths', to my mind a slippery slope that puts reality in the hands of whomever has the guns, money, power. I hope I am misunderstanding the concept. Most artists are in the 120-130 IQ range (myself) and this dialogue seems to be taking place at a higher plane. I taught painting in the academy some years ago and in my experience ANGB, in essence, rings true.

18 September, 2006 10:11  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I am concerned about the concept of 'truths', to my mind a slippery slope that puts reality in the hands of whomever has the guns, money, power.

Yeah, this is a real concern. On the other hand, someone's got to have the power...

I have a lot to say about this, but suffice to say right now that:

1. Big-T Truth is guaranteed to put reality in the hands of whomever has the power.
2. Deconstructing power is fun as a parlor game, but is also a recipe for powerlessness--it's like handing the keys over to someone else because all you want to do is critique how bad they are at doing something.
3. Transactional, or little-t truths are what individuals share. little-t truths are always being tested against reality (ie, we both experience the sun as warming, and snow is cold for everyone) and against one another's truths (ie, I think GW Bush is a liar and fraud and you think he is a good man, but we get our information from different sources and have different values.)
4. In a perfect world, these differences would mean more questioning. Why is your truth different from my truth? Where are you coming from? What can we learn from one another? But of course, the word Truth and all its Big-Tness that it connotes gets in the way. I, for one, shudder at the thought of conceding anything to a GWB supporter... because I am RIGHT!!!

(Therein lies the problem)

5. This may be hopelessly idealistic, but hey. I am not a brain surgeon, I make useless things.

18 September, 2006 18:59  
Anonymous Eric Larsen said...

I just hate hearing something like this--"I am not a brain surgeon, I make useless things." What's this about "useless," fer god's sake? Consider the brain surgeon--how "useful" are some of the brains he/she works on? And what's the result? Some idiot is able to watch Jay Leno for ten more years? Am I somehow responsible for this seeming downturn and depression in you? Any piece of art that's serious is by definition not useless. Gotta define serious, but that's what we've been trying to figure out and where the real interest lies--where's the Makerthinker? The Makerthinker can't make anything that's "useless"--not if they're still the Makerthinker. Are you feeling down, pummeled, trodden, beat, exhausted so that you say what you said? If I'm to blame in any way, damn, suicide-city.

18 September, 2006 23:47  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Not despondent, just being factual. I do make useless things. I do it for idealistic reasons. Just the facts, maam.

Humility is good. So is perspective.
(And I should take my own advice much more often)

19 September, 2006 06:58  

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