Theory and Philosophy

Objective Clarity in Our Visions of Each Other

Objective Clarity in Our Visions of Each Other

On Adrian Piper

In an essay from 1988 called “The Joy of Marginality” Piper made explicit the scope and purpose of her own political and socially-critical art. “My work is an act of communication that politically catalyzes its viewers into reflecting on their own deep impulses and responses to racism and xenophobia, relative to a target or stance that I depict,” she wrote. To achieve this goal (or any goal of effecting psychological change through art), Piper thought it was essential to engage the viewer in what she called the “indexical present” of the work of art: a here-and-now created in the transaction between artist and audience. (Conversely, she expressed skepticism about the efficacy of “global political art” that attempts to educate or persuade the viewer concerning a situation represented as being external to the viewer’s own experience). In another text, “Performance: The Problematic Solution,” Piper championed the didactic and the confrontational as central aspects, or modes, of this form of artist–viewer engagement.

Ordinary Faithfulness

Ordinary Faithfulness

Stanley Cavell, 1926–2018

Philosopher Stanley Cavell, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard, who died on June 19 at age 91, published his first book, Must We Mean What We Say?, during the strike. The book’s essays cover a broad range of subjects, from modernist music and Beckett’s Endgame to Kierkegaard and King Lear. But one area—political theory—is noticeably absent. And yet, two essays, which were composed over the course of the ’60s, speak directly to the most pressing political issues of the decade: civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

Misdiagnosis

Misdiagnosis

Should we be angry about Trump’s Twitter account, or the consolidation of nuclear power to a single elected position?

The diagnoses laid out here—narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathy, Alzheimer’s, Trump-as-Hitler—will not result in treatment or removal from office. They assume a rational population that needs only to have the cause laid out for them. The problem confronting America is not a dearth of facts; the problem, rather, is that most people want the benefits of a system whose logical extreme—Trump—they can’t tolerate.

I Write Because I Hate

I Write Because I Hate

William Gass, 1924–2017

It is not hard to imagine young Gass chafing at the bit that midcentury analytic philosophy had sought to place in his mouth. In interviews he sometimes compared metaphor to junk food, which is of course dangerous, but also hard to define. In a broad sense any food is junk if you eat too much of it, or at the wrong time; in a narrower sense, junk food is delicious, and can be very good for the soul.

Obscurity of Purpose, Immediacy of Experience

Obscurity of Purpose, Immediacy of Experience

On documenta 14

Obscurity of purpose; immediacy of experience; the foregrounding of a nameless parallel space, shorn of concrete social orientation: these qualities enveloped huge swathes of the exhibition. In a paradoxical turn, the greater the formal emphasis on participation, egalitarian engagement, and the banishment of hierarchy, the less political commitment, or the articulation of a clearly defined viewpoint, appeared possible. It’s a turn that has been noted before, most magisterially by Claire Bishop in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012). One foregrounds a “symmetrical situation of the encounter of equals,” only to wind up with incoherence and a teleology of open-endedness. Social relations were skated over, as projects like Social Dissonance melded more or less anonymous participants into spontaneous collectives. Artists tacked on political motives as loose premises or ex post facto revelations, unintegrated into any aesthetic whole.

Cankerworms

Cankerworms

Mothering is not only gathering together; it is also letting go, dropping one’s grasp—accidentally, ideally, but dropping it nevertheless.

“Here I was, enjoying a continuity of being.” The big sphere of my baby’s head was very much like a circle, and when he felt like he was falling, his little arms and legs jerked upwards, like their propulsion could push him back to his starting point. Because I was not a not-good-enough mother, this didn’t happen very often, but I winced every time it did, nevertheless. The difficulty of maternal gathering is that it is always going to fail. To grow—to become a person—the baby must get past his earliest, balloon-like self. He must separate himself into a head and a body, then a head, a body, and arms. The project is not solely separating the baby from his mother; it is separating the baby from himself. Building a version of self that can acknowledge its hands and feet. Its mind, within, and its skin, without.