Archive for the thoughts Category

The naked democracy

Posted in thoughts on February 11, 2013 by isidor

Latouche’s ideas were a nice surprise when I first heard of them; a genuine theory of the décroissance (downscaling or degrowth), set against the background of the economic crisis, could have been water to a house on fire where everybody is desperately seeking a scapegoat. It also seemed to flesh out part of what was spinning in my mind, as well as providing a breath of fresh air when compared to more conventional thinkers.
Upon actually reading one of his books (Pour sortir de la société de consommation), the first thing I came across was, apparently, a somewhat stereotyped democratic formula, with a hint of socialism, based on a long list of abstract ideals. Subcomandante Marcos’ is widely cited in the book, especially his advocacy to a democracy where “he who commands, commands obeying”. I hastily finished the rest of the book, finding it rather lacking, especially when it came to putting theory into practice; a part of the process that doesn’t seem to be seriously contemplated outside the realm of wishful thinking. His “ideal planet” has no geography, no structure, no facets. It is a homogeneous shapeless blob of well intentioned beings, straight out from Rousseau’s state of nature. It is an utopia I admire, but it is also a world more suited to fairy tales rather than to the complexity of a globalised world and the implicit nature of human societies.

1920 The Hat Makes the Man

One could say that such problems are understandable for a theory in its infancy; however, even then, throughout the book I couldn’t help but keep questioning the fundamental assumption the décroissance line of thought is based on.
Let us go back to the Subcomandante for a second. His statement, quoted above, seems to make perfect sense in itself, but it should be the target of further scrutiny: obedience of the political establishment is the key to such a revolution (and many others). Once a new political and social order is set (through revolutionary methods, or however else), a new hierarchy is expected to come into place, according to, more or less, certain schemes established by the revolutionary ideals.
In the mind of the author, previous ideas (and especially previous conditions) can be erased without leaving a trace: everybody can start from a blank slate. Through education and equality of conditions, a new kind of human arises; thus a new, true democracy is forged on the basis that the rising powers shall prove obedient to this renewed moral compass.
Assuming that such a thing might happen, the question I cannot ignore is: obedience to whom?
Etymologically, the answer is simple: democracy is the rule of the people. That could be our answer: the people are to be obeyed. The conundrum, however, goes deeper, as another question arises: who is “the people”?
Technically, “the people” are the inhabitants of one specific country; then again, modern countries have such layered societies and internal discrepancies that “the people” cannot be but an extremely abstract concept.
A generic will of the people, a conceptual entity that channels all tangential lines of democratic thought into a more generic container: supposedly, that is the heart of a democracy; in other words, the minimum common denominator of all private interests, that takes into account basic human rights.
It can therefore be said that the purpose of the state is to satisfy those interests, protecting at the same time minorities and weaker classes in a certain measure, as well as producing and maintaining a Constitution that evolves in time.
The immediate counter-sense of such a system is that the groups within it are encouraged to compete, but at the same time rules are imposed to keep competition on a fair basis. As all groups ultimate desire is to prevail, there is no explicit impediment to the distortion of the rules through the exercise of power (as long as it is done within the margins of the laws), as has been happening in most countries in favour of liberal capitalism ever after WWII.
Thus, an oppressive “democracy” with a political caste that only acts towards its own interest is indeed a democracy; an egoistic behaviour on the ruling classes’ part is only a reflection of the entire societal substrate, entire generations brought up to think that everybody is equal, but that you yourself should try to be (in Orwell’s terms) more “equal” than others.
This mechanism can especially be observed in the way democratic change is introduced; social rights and privileges are only obtained when a large, or powerful enough majority successfully lobbies for its objectives, not because other groups do it in the name of fairness or ideals. Groups occasionally help each other, forming powerful complexes capable of snowballing to country-wide consent, but in the end this is done exclusively because they benefit from each other. In other words, every man is out there to fend for himself.
The weakest spot of the recent protests against Wall street and the financial system was indeed this: that a group of otherwise unrelated people rallied for the sake of justice; their slogans and requests, however, did not advocate a radical change: they simply attacked the infamous 1%. That is to say: we don’t want to change the world, we want the same advantages as the 1% does (and if we cannot have them, neither can they). Which is, in itself, a good resolution, but it does not address the root of the problem: behead one queen and you will soon see a new one emerging.

Consequently the major constant in such a democracy will be unregulated growth, where the largest entities are not in control of themselves, rather they are bound to inter and intra-group interest conflicts. Returning to Latouche, it is evident that no faction proposing an economic downscaling can obtain consensus in a democracy unless a majority does (or is mislead to believe that it can) profit through such actions. Changing the way supply and demand works would be possible only from a strong central power, but that would also be absolutely undemocratic as no such a measure could ever be popular. Even though currently a majority (or a sizable part) of the population in the Western World is pro-environment and favourable to halting climate change, such a position is but a castle of cards: as westerners are not currently significantly impacted, and no energetic crisis can be accurately predicted, approving of the cause appears easy. When personal sacrifices will actually be in order (the 1973 oil crisis being an apt example), the public opinion will be much easier to sway in one direction or another. Almost a century worth of advertisement, psychological engineering and aggressive marketing cannot be undone in the space of one generation: we are born to consume. This is already showing in the form of dietary choices: an immediate example is that, with the impending depletion of maritime resources, consumption of seafood (especially sushi) is on the rise. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and no consumer item appears to be left untainted.




We wish to make it clear that it not our intention to diminish the incredible benefits democracy and consumer society has granted us (“Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” as W. Churchill would have it), but rather to delineate the situation where the current establishment (or part of it) is apparently unsuitable to face the challenges of the 21st century. A democracy that is mostly policed by human desires (rather than rational analysis), that in the name of liberal capitalism sacrifices stability in the name of competition, that maximises individual or kinship based gains at the expense of the rest, such a system renders vital decision-making decidedly too slow to prevent what several major contemporary authors (such as E.O. Wilson, J. Diamond and Latouche himself) keep warning us about.

Lastly, as a thought: are the people accountable for their actions? How do you account responsibility in a society where everybody decides? If we are wrong on a collective scale, who is to be blamed? In extreme cases you can dethrone a tyrant, behead kings, establish a scapegoat; but how do you cope with your own mistakes, if we always seek the causes far from our own doorstep? Blowing up one or two Parliaments is a solution I often hear in conversations, but that simply is not going to cut it.

In conclusion, I will not provide my own far-fetched solution, my utopian paradise. What we really need to acknowledge is that human nature has certain features that ultimately trickle down into society, no matter what culture we are born into, and that societies have intricate relationships with the environment. Evolutionary psychology, system sciences and ecology are all new disciplines, but they will be have to be the deeply integrated (rather than the prevalent superficial and short-term thinking) into any political invention if we are to disentangle ourselves from this mess.

(Paintings by M. Ernst)


Unrevised art notes: the ghost elephant and the troll in the gift shop

Posted in thoughts on April 8, 2012 by isidor

“The discovery of central perspecitve bespoke a dangerous development in Western thought. It marked a scientifically oriented preference for mechanical reproduction and geometrical constructs in place of creative imagery. William Ivins had pointed out that, by no mere coincidence, central perspective was discovered only a few years after the first woodcuts had been printed in Europe. The woodcut established for the European mind the almost completely new principle of mechanical reproduction. It is to the credit of Western artists and their public that despite the lure of mechanical reproduction, imagery has survived as a creation of the human spirit. Even in the age of photography it was imagination that engaged the service of the machine, not the machine that expelled imagination. Neverthless, the lure of mechanical faithfulness has ever since the Renaissance tempted European art, especially in the mediocre standard output for mass consumption. The old notion of “illusion” as an artistic ideal became a menace to popular taste with the beginnings of the industrial revolution.”

from Art and Visual Perception, R. Arnheim, pp.284-285

The naissance of mechanical reproduction marks indeed a steering in the public’s taste: once used to it, it is hard to go back, and in popular art the equation between photorealism and quality became an unavoidable dualism, for the “man in the street” as Arnheim calls it. Two categories escape this preconception: decoration and caricature, or satire. We might ask ourselves the reason for this: for centuries civilizations depended on highly stilyzed art (not that the central perspective is not a style), such as the European Miniature, which comes across as “badly drawn” often enough to infuriate anybody who has the slightest interest in the subject. While any art historian knows better, it is often not an easy task to explain to the layman why it is the contrary, even more so to have him appreciate it for what it is, and not for qualities that foresee what was to come in the Renaissance. The main reason, I believe, is that people are deeply tied to a narration, the intrinsic story that any picture tells. Once the means to decypher that narration are lost, the picture is as good as gone to somebody who is not a scholar. Abstract, informal paintings almost always tell a plurality of stories, but the number of people able to deduct them is limited.
The big question is then: can be the average contemporary narration tracked down to guidelines? What is the zeitgeist of the 21st century, what is our drug, our narration? Can a coscience of the public be established, is it worth considering, is it headed somewhere? It is a complex question and it can be excluded that there is any straighforward answer.
First, let us got back to the “mediocre” that Arnheim uses to define the popular taste for “photorealistic” (which is an oxymoron, considering that the concept of photorealism changes along with the times), and see what it does imply. First of all a separation between the public and the élite claims superiority in the name of Art with the capital A, an art which largely stuck with the mathematical model of perspective right until photography was invented. Once that was out of the box, the artist was freed from the menial task of draughtsmanship and turned into the realm of the impression at first, then abstraction, surreal, and so on. This however, is where academic art came at a crossroad; while the artist, absorbed in a world of shapes and ideas, was keen to renovate his ways, the man in the street really had no reason to, as the narrative in photorealism hadn’t, and hasn’t ceased to function. This is perhaps where that “mediocre” comes from, that the general public’s taste never really adjusted to the innovation.
Today artists like Picasso are widely admired and respected, but I suspect it is entirely through the intervention of museum curators and critics that it has reached such universal acclaim. Most people might hang a Picasso poster in their homes, but when asked about it, will not be able to state the reason of its presence. They have been obsessed with it to the point that they have forgotten that a painting used to be a mesmerizing experience, something that sucked you in and brought you into the world of an artist, revealing new worlds, like a poetry enticing you and revealing a quintessence that simple words fail to convey. Instead, what you get (as somebody who bought the poster without going the long mental route to understand what is going on in the picture) is a vague sense of beauty and order, a neutral canvas that fits nicely on the walls of an office and sits there, functioning as a decoration, and that is: something that sits on the background quietly, charming and tranquilizing our inconscious with a stable and acceptable pattern until we decide to bring it to attention, and slowly caress the lines with our minds. This way, the entire point of a painting is led astray, and the only way to restore it is through a museal setting.
Right there, a large issue emerges: art becomes widely recognized as a deeply istitutionalized form, something you can find between the four corners of a square frame, in a designated room, in a designated building.
This is the point where one stops and wonders: are we missing something here? Is that all there is to it? Did not art use to be a part of our lives, and why does it now seem to be utterly irreconciliable with entertainment (e.g. the creation of the term “artsy fartsy”)?
One has to think of the dangers that this view implies. There is, or there used to be, a very large divide between music, drawings, sculptures, etc. and ornament. Ornament was a part only, and a tool; it appeased, when properly employed, our innate sense of beauty, it fulfilled a function that works unconsciously on our mind; it separated the work of man from that of nature: even a simple dotted line can represent the orderly society a man lives in. It is not a coincidence that the earliest, most prominent use of decoration, appears in pottery, a gateway stage in the progress of any civilization.
On the other side, a work of art can be defined on the basis of being active: it conveys ideas, it is supposed to be a brilliant communicator; a meme fountain, as suggested by S. Blackmore, but without the human presence. Such an object does not exclude the use of the unconscious, though its main claim lies elsewhere; the ornament becomes a tool, under strict control. The very decline and subsequent abandon of ornament in modern art has its root in the bloated use which started in the Baroque, as Ruskin and the many that followed denounced; ornament had gone out of control.

It is the ideas then, the concepts that lie beneath the surface, are the elephant in the room as far as art goes; you cannot ever forget, hide them, or shield yourself behind the veil of so called tradition. Pictures of crusaders fighting Saladin echo a conflict that still has effect on the present and is far from being ever resolved, they cannot be simply acknowledged as ‘our past’. Masterpieces have become distant only through forgetfulness or ignorance, they are phantoms of values that have become the subject of myths and tales.

The result is that they too become ornament, a satisfying backdrop which does not bother the eye in the least way. They become t-shirts, mugs, fridge magnets. One is simply to stop questioning their existence, their reason to be where they are. The direction is that of a sterile aestheticism, appreciation of form in a purely material essence; the post-modern obsession with the sign, with the material. Something so neutral that it can be placed anywhere, from the top of the Eiffell Tower to the seat of your own toilet to the plastic cover of your Ipad. Don’t get me wrong; the desire to surround oneself in beauty is more than humane, and one of the pleasures of life; art in this century becomes re-mediated, it enters an entirely new dimension. In some ways, we have to learn not only respect, but also disrespect; however, it is also something that we must always do with knowledge, or the consequences will be soon evident [should get to this later, see ‘sea of trash’ + information reception and intrinsic values].
Meanwhile, it seems the art establishment has forgotten men have desires, physical as well as spiritual; that art is a cultural product, and it’s no use for it to try and camouflage itself as a cold measure of gestures and space, of self-analysis. Once we are tired of measuring space, we will realize that the only thing we can measure is ourselves, and that is all we have done for years, without scratching the surface of what is an hypothetical external world. Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Lem’s Solyaris sums it up neatly:

Dr. Snaut: We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn’t want. Man needs man!

Such calculated items, then, lose value once out of context, submerged by the noise that is the neverending flux of our information society. Unless there is a distinctive pattern, the art object will die out: it will need to be able to fend for itself, without the help of institutions or the likes.
As a matter of fact, new forms are emerging already, right in front of our eyes. Though it might sound silly, internet memes, which still are in their infancy, function according to a mechanism much stronger than any we might devise on our own, which is natural selection. I will have to get into detail about this later, and try to explain why they have anything at all to do with art, and why LOLcats and shoopdawhoops are not simple laughing matters but building blocks of something much bigger.

Pieces adding up

Posted in thoughts on January 15, 2012 by isidor

“Bologna is a city of the bourgeoisie. The intellectual kind, though. There’s no proletarian culture, like in Genova.”
“Anyway, don’t you think somebody should take a hold of the situation? It doesn’t look like the association can go very far, this way.”
“You’re one of those hard-nosed types, uh? Take her for instance” looking at the woman that was addressing the reunion “she should be killed, skinned alive.”
“Why so?”
“She’s a monster.”
“She was my thesis advisor in university.”
“Where are you from anyway?”
“I was born here in Bologna. And probably a bourgeois, to top it off.”
“You dress awfully bad for a bourgeois.”

While I stumble across ugly lumps of leftover incongruity, I experience samadhi before knowing what it is. I chance upon it a few days later, reading Zolla, and I am now in love again with distant gods, with the alchemic view of life, with times when time wasn’t counted in days, nor years, but in generations, and we built pyramids of stone, not of trash. Other people seem more and more distant, whilst I break into tears admiring the beauty of insects and the fog in Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia.  Am I floating away again?

Nature of design, design of nature, part 1

Posted in thoughts on November 2, 2011 by isidor

Taking the peacock’s* tail as a paradigm of natural design, we might ask ourselves how such a peculiar physionomy came into being; biologists have long debated on its origin, however, districating cause from effect in what appears to be circular logic is not so easy.
Evidence about peahens identifying males with better tails as better mating partners is controversial**; it is clear, however, that peacocks put up a lot of effort to display their tails in the attempt to attract females. What does not appear to make sense, at first sight, is that a peacock’s tail is an expensive and dangerous device: it wastes much of the bird’s energy and exposes it to predators.  The Fisher theory suggests, that a larger, more impressive tail in a male increases a female’s chances of leaving long-tailed offspring behind, which in turn will continue having impressive tails, while the least impressive tailed-males, having  not been able to perpetrate their short tailed genes, will disappear. The real dilemma is: have females started evolving a preference for long tails, because a long tail is a symptom of fitness (lack of diseases, being able to get a lot of food to grow it, and to escape predators); or is it that males, have through mutation started tapping into females’ sense of what is a fit male, therefore “cheating” through a tail that amplifies the information one can get about their status?
That is to say, we get a puzzle that is already there, but we do not know who started it.

Edo period painter Itô Jakuchû was most famous for his love of birds

Taking a big leap, we shift our attention to an item whose history is quite interesting: the chair. If the peacock’s tail was the paradigm for natural design, this object will be for the human (cultural) counterpart. Dating back to the dawn of civilization, it first was as an item of power (e.g. thrones), and it wasn’t until the Renaissance that the connection with royalty faded; once the transition had started, soon everybody and his dog had a chair. Thus it quickly became a familiar sight in any house (for the sake of brevity, we will speak of western ones only).
The chairs most people had, up until the end of the 19th century, were simple, functional pieces of carved wood; chairs for the upper classes on the other hand, not only were (obviously) inlaid with precious materials, but they had to accomodate for crinolines and farthingales, which in turn were necessary for any woman to be accepted in high society. Chair design, in other words, had evolved past mere functionality and extra effort was spent to create luxury chairs.
Perhaps a chair does not have offspring, but it might be said that the concept of a chair, made in a certain manner, hops from mind to mind. Thus, once Europe turned its head away from nobility and into the implications of mass production, a new concept of chair emerged.

The Thonet chair, "No. 14" or "Bistro chair"

The Thonet chair, "No. 14" or "Bistro chair"

The Thonet chair No.14 may be extremely familiar to us now with over 50 million pieces produced (“Bistro chair”), but in those very years it took the scene by storm. Art critic and architect Gottfried Semper denounced it as doing violence to the material (the wood was steam-bent), and such a comment certainly made sense in the “peacock tail” state of mind: the chair was simple, inexpensive and sturdy, thus it did not say anything about its owner, if it was a king or a peasant.
What was the real value of expensive chairs? The inherent beauty in a peacock’s tail and in a baroque Louis XIV chair we could call the phenotipic effect (a great show of ornament), but what really mattered were the genes behind the tail (for the peacock), and the extensive workmanship (for the chair). In this optic, beauty is just the result of something else. The real message, behind ornamental chairs and ornamental tails, is that the owner controls the necessary resources to create them, and isn’t afraid of showing off. Birds do it for mating, humans do it for power, but the difference here, I believe, is very thin.

However, after the industrial revolution nobility no longer held its sway on nations, and the real resources were in the hands of others: palaces and expensive ornaments were done for. This is why the No.14 triumphed, earning Thonet a medal at the World Fair in Paris, 1867 and helping him establish a successful enterprise.

* Pheasants and lyre birds also are good examples. Lyre birds in particular have indipendently evolved a tail with a similar function, along with their now famous vocal capabilities.

It may be suggested that the peacock, an animal that has been long bred in captivity and only recently reintroduced in the wild, has been addictionally selected for longer tails by men, seeking beautiful garden specimen. The current absence of variation in the lenght of tails might have made it necessary for females to develop new methods when mating, all other factors being equal. If females had always ignored the tails, we would need to find a new explanation on why such tails and arose in the first place (some suggest it is in order to scare potential predators; this, however, does not accomodate the males’ courting behaviour). While this is speculation and would need to be verified, it would be an interesting analogy between genetic  passing fashions and cultural ones.

Sources, and further reading:

The Red Queen by Matt Ridley
The sense of Order by E.M. Gombrich