The Studio of Eric Valosin

Monday, December 3, 2012

I thought I checked the box for "Artist" not "Postmodern Theophilosophical Ethicist..."

It's been a while since I blathered on about the theophilosophical things on my mind, and, frankly, I'm feeling rather theophilosophical today.

I've been thinking lately about the ethics postmodern mysticism.  Ivan Illich's lecture Life as Idol has me thinking about the coercive potentials of theological rhetoric, in what Foucault terms "Biopower."  To grossly summarize Illich's main point, he says that the term "life" (according to the 25 criteria of Uwe Poerkson) has become a "plastic word" or an "amoeba word" - that is, a common word that has been imbued with so many specialized definitions that, once spat back out into colloquium, it essentially has lost all concrete meaning whatsoever to the lay person.  The trouble is, though it carries no concrete meaning, it still carries powerful connotation.  Thus, to say "Pro-Life" says little about what concretely one is to be pro- about, but uses the power of its ambiguity to strike an emotional chord (who can honestly claim to be "Anti-Life" and still sleep at night?).  Illich says that most "scientific" arguments for Life are both entirely unscientific and actually say nothing about "life" as a qualitative thing.  Rather, they borrow the connotative power of the word "life" to make a compelling ethical argument for some biological change.  "Life begins at conception," we often hear.  Really, that is to say that at conception there is some distinct biological difference, on a cellular level, that did not exist prior to that moment of conception.  But what earns that singular difference the title "life?" Aren't all cells, fertilized or not, alive?  We think of trees as alive, but do they have life?  Are they "a life?"  Does "life" then equal "soul?" What then, scientifically is "soul?"

You can see where the issue gets sticky, all polemics aside.  Regardless of your position on the example Illich uses, it seems that the term "life" is really only selected because it feels to be the right word, not because it actually is the right word.  "Life" as a substantive word (as in "to be [a] life" rather than "to have the quality of life"), Illich argues, is in fact historically traceable to none other than Jesus, who is the first person in western history to claim to be Life (John 11:25).  Therefore, every subsequent use of "life" in the same sense, apart from referring to Jesus, is actually heretical!  It is this that leads Illich to confront a forum of clergy, opening with the mystically oppositional curse, "To Hell with Life!"  They naturally took well to that...

The goal of the mystic and the postmodern philosopher both is to nip these semantics in the bud; to reach beyond the confining and coercing potentials of these semantics; to call a spade a spade (and not pretend that the spade is actually some Platonic sword against which no one can argue), in order to get at the heart of a limitless, undefinable God, bigger than what that spade could ever hold.

This is the battle I take on every time I co-opt a religious symbol or reference a specific tradition in my artwork.  The spades are all lost in a flurry of swords swinging violently and haphazardly in front of the viewer.

My mentor Iain brings up a related challenge in our digital culture's preoccupation with "interactivity."  Who really knows what that means anymore?  Is "interactive" too plastic a word?  We kid ourselves into thinking interactivity is the same as user-definability.  To make interactive art, a camera might sense the viewer's presence so that their movements trigger change in the piece.  But wasn't art always interactive?  To view a piece - even to think about a piece - is to interact.  Really, what we mean by "interactivity" is a sort of "master-slave" relationship; a sort of "look what I can make it do" effect.  It echoes Lev Manovich's assessment of the seeming media-induced inversion of "strategies" and "tactics" in his The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life (a riff on Michel De Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life in which he asserts the hierarchical societal roles of those in power who create "strategies" - systems within which society functions - and those below who create "tactics" - ways in which to navigate those systems).  User-definability gives the appearance that the common man can now move from his role of tactician to strategist, and that the power institutions are therefore rendered reactive, more like tacticians than the strategists they once were.  Of course this is all a ruse, since the user can only manipulate the system to an extent within the parameters set up by the strategist in the first place.  You can customize your home page all you want, but it will never become Photoshop.  Thus it merely serves to further suppress and placate the lowly tactician.  The master-slave dichotomy of interactive art toes this very ambiguous line, I think.

I've decided to combat this hierarchy (or at least call attention to it) in my latest "interactive" endeavor.  The viewer's motion will indeed trigger events in the video they are watching, but each subsequent effect triggered will also amount to a progressive dimming of the video until, at some point, the video will shut off completely, refusing the viewer's coercion.  Only after a set time period of complete stillness will the video restore itself.  This way the more the viewer tries to become the video's master, the more he will realize he is actually at the video's mercy after all.

Finally, on the subject of Ethics, Iain asserted that (citing a source I can't remember now) every ethical problem is at its most basic level an aesthetic one.  How you treat a person, for instance, is an ethical issue.  However, in order to even get to that point, one has to sense that there is a person, and make a value judgement based on their sensory perception.  Perception is the territory of aesthetics; that you even recognize a mass of colors as a person in the first place already pre-forms the ethical framework within which you will deal with said person. (If you decided what you saw amounted to a tree, you would probably not decide to tease it based on it's skin color, etc).

I'm not sure what to do with this yet, but it seems of utmost importance for all artists, really.  Until I reach some conclusion, I suppose I'll keep boring you with stuff like this (afterwards I'll bore you with some really inspired stuff like this).

Whew, is that a big theophilosophical weight off my shoulders!  Ok, back to my to-do list...

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