destroy before reading

How are you going to behave? A kitchen cat speaks. Liam Gillick (2009)

I don’t need no doctor
My prescription tells me that
I don’t need no doctor
My prescription tells me that
All I need is my baby
You don’t know I’m in misery
–I Don’t Need No Doctor Humble Pie

This week’s installation of popOp continues some of last week’s discussion about relational aesthetics, but here we consider some of the debate between Liam Gillick and Claire Bishop in the pages of October. It’s hoped that as we’re going through the debate we will gain a sense of what spectacular agency might entail. All of this discussion of spectaclism and spectaclist relations is being bandied about because I’m trying to think noncoercive political action, the immediate inspiration being the recent police actions in Toronto during the G20 summit.

Below is a long-ish video that I think does an excellent job providing details of the police state that Toronto became last week. I encourage you to view the entire ten minutes as it crescendos after an interesting lull:

I like this clip also because it does a fine job of linking to another clip which shows a bird’s eye view of the events where you can see the young man being beaten with a police shield as they march on what appears to be a calm group of people. Around minute five the people ask the police, “Why are you doing this to us? Where do you want us to go?” Then, around minute eight the wall of riot police dissolve their wall and swoop in to grab these people by their necks and club them into submission once behind the wall of police again. We are told that after the video ends the young man is beaten by the police, arrested, and detained for six hours until released. He is never charged with anything.

MATR Mobile Apparatus for Temporality Research. spurse (2009).

Those familiar with the G20 (it was the G8 during the 90s) are also familiar with these forms of police actions, whether the Battle of Seattle, the actions in Genoa, or the murder of Ian Tomlinson in London last year. Sadly, it would seem that Oakland is bracing for riots this weekend as the trial of Johannes Mehserle comes to an end (here is an excellent primer on the murder of Oscar Grant III).

But what, if anything, do the antiglobalization movement, or the use of lethal force by the police, have to do with relational aesthetics, and what could these have in common with spectacular agency? They each point to the increasingly sad reality that we, as a society, tend to forget what Mary McCarthy pointed out, “When someone points a gun at you and tells you, ‘Kill your friend or I’ll kill you,’ he is tempting you, that is all.” Underwriting each of these social phenomena is a lack of thinking. These processes are demonstrative of what Hannah Arendt described in her essay Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship: an “eerie exercise,” where more than simple emotional reactions are involved but an actual push away from “impartial and detailed further examination of the period in question.” Spectacular agency is a response to life circumstances that will not allow deliberation. In articulating what kind(s) of agency is (are) possible outside of thinking it is hoped that novel modes of political action will become obviated.

The relational aesthetics discussion between Claire Bishop and Liam Gillick provides an opportunity to palpate spectaclism. In the previous installment I stated that I am simpatico with Bourriaud’s ideas and I want to agree with Bishop’s questioning, but ultimately she leaves the discussion wanting. Her primary concern with what she understands to be the relational aesthetic tendencies is that this mode of art production does not adequately address political action because it rests on a fundamentally flawed analysis of agency. Bishop employs her reading of Laclau & Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics and argues that Bourriaud (and Gillick as well as Rikrit Tiravanija) fail to recognize that democracy is always already an antagonistic expression.

Those familiar with Gillick’s response to Bishop will recall that through a flawed analysis of Laclau and Mouffe’s discussion of democracy Bishop resorts to nasty language like “feel good”ery and so on. While Gillick does tend to get a little personal in his response to Bishop I think in the main he’s correct to lament the lack of theoretical or methodological rigor in Bishop’s essay. But Gillick does not exactly expand the reader’s understanding of what relational aesthetics could do for us as a mode of political action. A solid place to start would be to begin with Bishop’s understanding of agency, something that the comparative philosopher in me loves to consider.

Pad Thai. Rikrit Tiravanija (1991-96)

It all starts with thinking. I’ve stated that spectacular agency is a theory of political action for everyone and no one. Following Heidegger (losing Nietzsche) it is a theory for everyone that would understand that the act of thinking is that moment when one becomes questionable to oneself. What thinking requires is not simply the satisfaction of having found a thinker in a book and then discussing what one has read in it; that is not thinking. Heidegger warns us that this known fact (found in the book) only increases the danger that we will not have found the one thought that each thinker ever has in a lifetime. For Nietzsche it was the eternal return. For Heidegger it would seem that home is a metaphysical place not so far away (dare I suggest that it’s a Shinto sentiment?)

What thinking reveals is the inherent need for thinking with others; this is where Bishop fails completely. As Heidegger stated, “no thinker can ever be overcome by our refuting him and stacking up around him a literature of refutation.” To be able to think requires losing that which we have read, but this is not a matter of dropping what we read on the side of the road. It is less a losing what we’ve learned and perhaps more a loose-ing: let loose that thinker we’ve learned from and show all that has been left unthought in their thinking.

It seems that Bishop (and to be fair, Gillick doesn’t mention it either) fails to reconsider her notions of what an audience means, or what could compose those masses that would enact political actions. Throughout her essay her argument rests on a notion of atomistic individuals (whether partial egos a la Lacan or not, this is still atomism). Thus she understands that “relational art works seek to establish intersubjective encounters.” The scenario she has just described is something like arriving at a Civil War site and asking, “why did all these battles take place in National Parks?”

Relational art, to be intelligible and political, doesn’t seek to establish intersubjective encounters because intersubjectivity is presupposed.

Tiravanija’s cooking pad thai with visitors is not about an impromptu happening (how very mod of you, Rikrit). Tiravanija’s Pad Thai highlights a central theme in Confucian-influenced cultures: that the ordering of the socius is done harmoniously. As Ames and Rosemont have pointed out, harmony is a culinary act: blending and combining foods so that they come together in mutual benefit and enhancement of the ingredients while not losing their particular identities. We will see a recursive pattern around this culinary theme.

This mode of subjectivity would also presuppose a an ontology that is not transcendental, but immanent. The culinary dimensions of East Asian societies are such that, when encountering something unknown for the first time, the question one asks is not “what is that?” which presupposes an ontology rooted in transcendental categories and genus; rather the question is “how do you cook it?” The former question presupposes teleological responses and so Bishop’s thinking on the matter leads her to assume that Bourriaud’s theory of art produces an emancipatory effect. I would suggest that relational aesthetics is not about “getting it” through (only) rationalization, but relies on the at-handedness that Heidegger speaks of. “Getting it” means apprehending it. Or as stated in the Ancient Chinese 詩經 (Book of Songs), “When making an axe handle, the model is never very far.”

Given a tin ear for this mode of thinking (which, to be fair, isn’t exactly a ubiquitous mode of thinking) Bishop tries to set-up Bourriaud for a decisive blow by discussing the problem of structure in his theory asking, “could I live… in a world structured by the organizing principles of a Mondrian painting? Or what ‘social form’ is produced by a Surrealist object?” Again, a telos is assumed here that, so employed, leaves the inquisitor seeming ham-fisted. Rather than asking this question of what the art work models the viewer adds value to the art work (it is said to appreciate in value) by engaging in an examination of ourselves as co-conspirators in the art. Ultimately Bishop wants to excoriate Bourriaud, et al. for equating aesthetic judgment with an ethicopolitical judgment of the relations produced by the work of art.

What Bishop fails to see is that, in a world understood as intersubjective, an aesthetic judgment is necessarily an ethical (and by extension, political) act. It is no wonder, then, that she then insists on a definition of democracy that is always in a state of aggression, much more Hobbes than I would expect in the 21st century.

Buddha's Hand. Huang Yong Ping (2006)

stunned, bemis center for contemporary art, (meta)mute, the author.



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8 responses to “destroy before reading

  1. Paul, this is fabulous. And frustrating. Talking about the action of thought in this way puts the video above in such a weird perspective. I can’t help but want to link the thought/lack of thought in the video above to the video you posted on your facebook page:
    When you define thinking as “that moment when one becomes questionable to oneself,” it’s hard to find the thought in the acts of the protesters or the police. The former because as much as they might have expected the police response, still did not expect the extent to which it happened. The latter because they are very clearly acting without thought. Or, rather, they are not allowing thought to guide their actions.
    I think the difficulty with protest is allowing for improvisation when you have very limited options (we’ll say when the oppressive forces are literally and figuratively cutting off any possible routes for alternative action).

    • It is frustrating, Ari.
      This video embedded in my post got me thinking about what Hannah Arendt said, “There exists in our society a widespread fear that has nothing to do with the biblical ‘Judege not, that ye be not judged,’ and if this fear speaks in terms of ‘casting the first stone,’ it takes this word in vain. For behind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence the doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done.” (emphasis mine)

      And this is precisely the point of discussing spectacular agency.

      If you noticed (I didn’t until the second go round) toward the end of the clip (around the 8th minute, I think) you can clearly see the cops have a guy standing on the other side of the human wall with a video camera.

      Since Rodney King it’s been very clear to folks that want to rage against the machine that having video images of brutality will work in your favor as the spectacle of violence usually communicates something rapidly (usually it’s a moral claim akin to “we’re David and they’re Goliath, Help!”) Among military circles there’s been this discussion for about ten years that the Pentagon needs to learn the lessons of “public diplomacy” and usually they’ll point-out that Al Qaeda-like networks are successful at recruiting and sustaining fighting against the largest military of all human history because they have the ability to win moral arguments using simple strategies like showing people getting killed by the outsider. Public diplomats point out that these videos are damaging because they reduce the (U.S.) mission to simple images of Goliath smothering Davids. So, they say, the Pentagon should find ways to reduce their enemy combatants to images as well.

      This is why the Toronto police are armed not only with massive military force, they are also armed with mass communications force. They are out there reducing their enemies to images. Then, were a trial to be called, the police would have their images fight the images brought forward by the protesters. Thus I talk about spectacular agency: what kind of agency do you have when you’re reduced to such?

      Ultimately, I believe that the frustration I feel is not that the protesters were not thinking, I suspect they thought this was a legal, non-offensive, active in my democracy-type action. They ask the riot police where they should go, they plead with them, as human beings to communicate. These people want to be compliant with the physical demands of the police and the police don’t allow that. The police, probably acting on the orders from someone not able to see what is happening in the situation, respond with beatings and arrests and detention.

      The trial of Johannes Mehserle (this cop stands accused of murdering Oscar Grant III, which he claims was an accident and only meant to use his Taser on Grant, even though he clearly uses the gun in the manner he’s been trained and is completely unlike the way one fires a Taser) raises a similar issue. The law is such that if a cop feels endangered, the cop can use lethal force at their discretion. Thus it’s legally very difficult to establish whether it is excessive to shoot in the back and kill a man who is prone on his stomach, hands under his body. Legally it’s tough to establish that.

      But morally it’s clear that Mehserle was wrong to do that. Even if it was the case that he meant to use his Taser, Mehserle only establishes with that fact that he is guilty of manslaughter and criminal negligence. But legally it’s unclear. I say he should be judged.

      Judging, like improvisation, as you brought up, is a risk that must be taken.

  2. Kathy F

    “a central theme in Confucian-influenced cultures: that the ordering of the socius is done harmoniously”…Paul, I love Confucius like a fat kid loves cake. but I really can’t buy into the theory that Confucian societies rank harmony above hierarchy. In my personal experience, harmony is all well and good, but if your CEO makes a wave, you ride it or else. I do not feel that agency is guaranteed. Contrary examples?

    • thanks for a great question Kathy!

      I think it’s a false problem: there is no tension between harmony and hierarchy. The Confucian model points to the family as the site for developing harmony. Clearly there must be a hierarchy between children and parents, for some amount of time, because the child must learn from the parents how to operate in the world. This is what has allowed human beings to thrive over these millions of years; not claws or super strength, but the ability to communicate culture.

      But, hierarchy cannot be stagnant. At some point every child must learn to become like a parent to their parents (who in old age become much more like children). The Confucian would emphasize the need for reciprocity in all human relationships. One cannot only be the recipient of someone’s largess for all their life, they must at some point be able to become the benefactor. They must be given the opportunity to give as well as receive. Without reciprocity, human relationships become cancerous.

      The real issue, then, is to understand one’s moment for shifting between the benefactor and the beneficiary. This is why tianming天命 the mandate of the heavens is always concerned with the conditions not of the skies, but “the sound from the ground.” Dynasties are said to lose their qualifications for ruling when the conditions of the people have become unbearable. When there is pestilence, unrest, famine, drought; these are all signs that the harmony of the human community has become unhinged and must be revisited.

  3. Karen

    On my growing list of my favorite posts you’ve written.

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