Tag Archives: introspection

On Humanisms

In the summer of 2011 I wrote a post for Rhizome’s blog called “It’s Only Humanist,” about the popularity of images of classical sculpture in digital art—a trend that notoriously went mainstream in the fall of 2012, when the visuals of Rihanna’s appearance on Saturday Night Live mixed ionic columns and marble busts with palm trees and Photoshop gradients. “It’s Only Humanist” was inspired by Sterling Crispin’s Tumblr Greek New Media Shit, and also included discussions of works by Nick DeMarco & Nicolas Colon, Oliver Laric, and Aids-3D, with a couple of visual examples from Frank Eickhoff and Sara Ludy; I wanted to consider references to classical imagery across a range of works, with sculpture and installation as well as the software etudes posted to Tumblr. The point I tried to make in the post was that the use of this imagery—and the way it was undermined with software editing effects—suggested doubt or skepticism about the integrity of the human subject within technological networks.

About a year after “It’s Only Humanist” was published Tom Moody wrote a series of posts on his own blog mocking “my” idea that the artworks mentioned in the post continued a tradition of humanist art by appropriating its imagery. That is, of course, a ridiculous idea, and I didn’t write anything of the sort. Perhaps I’m partly to blame for Moody’s misunderstanding because I wasn’t explicit enough; I didn’t want to say outright that these artists ere anti-humanist or “pro-machine.” I wanted to respect the ambivalence of the works, some of which seemed melancholy or nostalgic about the loss of an ideal while simultaneously treating it with humor. (A lack of one-sided clarity is a chronic problem of art writing, because art thrives on ambivalence, and the description of ambiguity often produces bad writing.) But the main problem, I think, was that Moody mistook my post’s title as a literal description of the works I discussed—when it was a joke aligned with the light attitude of the artists toward their source material—and wrote his posts on the basis of that mistake.

The funny thing is that when I wrote the post I had no particular interest in humanism—Joanne  McNeil, who was the editor of Rhizome at the time, was interested in the Greek New Media Shit trend and asked me to write about it—but now it’s become the subject of my dissertation. I’m writing about what happens to humanism in the twentieth century when thinkers feel the need to define the human against (or by) the machine. My central case study is Soviet culture of the 1930s, when vitalism resurged as a reaction to rapid industrialization and avant-garde metaphors of man as machine, but I also want to look at the emergence of anti-humanist philosophy in Western Europe in the 1930s, and try to offer some ideas about what humanism is or can be today. I don’t think the humanisms of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, with their idealization of the individual (male, European) subject using reason as tool to master the world, are viable or interesting now (and this was a problem in the Soviet situation: the disconnect between the neoclassical values that official culture promoted and the values it needed to build a new kind of state; I’m interested in the weird hybrid values in the artworks that this situation produced).

I’m not planning to say much about contemporary art in my dissertation. I think it’s too recent and unsettled to be an object of scholarship. But in my life outside grad school—in my work as a critic and curator—I’m looking at art that embodies these alternative humanisms, work that sees social media and other networks as potential means of expression for a common subjectivity and explores irrationality, abjection, queerness, affect, and other things that humans can do or have and machines can’t, the things that become important when omnipresent technology functions as a prosthesis for reason and calculation—the faculties most prized by the classical humanist subject. Some examples: Jesse Darling’s formless, ongoing online presence/work that ignores distinctions of public and private experience, or of bodies and work; Ann Hirsch’s treatment of networks as means of magnifying and refracting private desires and opening them up into real connections; Body by Body’s fantasies of physical transformation and degradation that identify bodies with digital media. These are all artists I’ve commissioned for Klaus_eBooks, a series of ebooks I’m organizing. What interests me about ebooks is how the device acquires power over the book; the book is formless, and only temporarily occupies the device’s screen. I see this as roughly analogous to how Facebook leeches power from its users over their self-presentation, or, more broadly, how power has passed from individual subjects to corporate ones in governments around the world. (These assertions are contentious and sketchy, I know; I’ll write more about them later.)   The dissolution of the book’s objecthood appears as a companion to the dissolution of liberal subjecthood—and identification with the ebook’s mode of being offers a possible path toward a common subjectivity that defines the human against systems of power. Greek New Media Shit casts doubts on the integrity of the human subject by undermining the imagery of classical sculpture with glitchy pixel decay, or by decentering it amid a network’s web, or by coloring it with the giddy extremes of the Photoshop palette. In other words, it suggests a breakdown of the ideals of classical humanism by cluttering their aesthetic embodiments with a bunch of digital junk. The kind of humanism I’m interested finds the human—or something like it—within that junk.

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8==>

I don’t have a LinkedIn page but if I did it would be filled with dick jokes.

When you get a LinkedIn page you get a LinkedIn Body—it’s you, reconstituted as a linear aggregate of achievement. A LinkedIn Body is made of the ways in which you’ve made money. A LinkedIn Body makes you into money—the contacts and connections are the lubricants of your professional mobility, and you, as a LinkedIn Body and a product on a networked market, are easily exchangeable, measurable in value. LinkedIn contacts aren’t people; people on LinkedIn are contacts. The LinkedIn Body doesn’t sweat or piss but it does shoot out bots—via email—to invite more contacts. The LinkedIn Body is a vessel that incubates new connections in the big collective networked body of LinkedIn.

The LinkedIn Body is promiscuous, and its promiscuity is purely professional—professionally pure. The LinkedIn Body is clear and flowing, transparent, flat, eager to link in to networking opportunities, to register presence in the mobile zones of white-collar labor. The LinkedIn Body is shaped like a slender strip of netting—the more connections it has, the longer and stronger it gets. Its health is measured by its number of contacts. Its orifices are hermetically sealed but its fingers branch out, offering a slim handshake in all directions. Its arms flex the clout of its connections. Its mouth is impenetrable; it shows a tight mesh of white teeth that circles the whole head, its gleam pinging back the query—Are we connecting?

I don’t want to have a LinkedIn Body and this is why I don’t have a page on LinkedIn. This is why, if I did have a page, it would be filled with dick jokes—to poke holes in the fabric of the LinkedIn Body, to peek through its undone flies, to be reminders of the real, pissing body beyond bloodless LinkedIn one: 8==> HI !!

The LinkedIn Body’s look persuades follow professionals that it never has funny thoughts about dicks. Or if it does it keeps them hidden, just as—on the streets or in the office—it conceals its dick in khakis. The LinkedIn Body’s dick fucks its wife and doesn’t try anything funny. The LinkedIn dick—encased in pleated khakis—only shares its funny dick thoughts in an AFK location like a men’s room where the only ones who can hear them are a couple other LinkedIn dicks who can be trusted not to perforate the condom of integrity encasing their LinkedIn dick buddy.

What does Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, have to say about this? “You have one identity,” says Zuckerberg. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

What Zuckerberg is saying here is that he thinks we should all have LinkedIn Bodies. No—he thinks the LinkedIn Body should be the only body we have. Co-workers—no, “work friends”—might as well be the only people you know. LinkedIn makes everyone a “contact”; Facebook treats people the same way but makes them “friends.” Friends are friends, kin are friends—you can identify husbands, wives, siblings, cousins on your profile to single a few people out as more than friends but they still count toward your total number of friends. And Facebook connects you to hundreds of friends. Facebook dresses up the strangeness of LinkedIn Bodies in the gooey warmth of friendship. But in spite of that it still shapes bodies as flat, grasping, eager—monstrous.

What does Chris Poole, founder of 4Chan, have to say about this? “Google and Facebook would have you believe that you’re a mirror,” says Poole. “But in fact, we’re more like diamonds.” He means we have a body that’s not a LinkedIn Body—but we have to hide parts of it at times. We’re like diamonds, he says, but Poole’s diamonds oddly reflect light from only one facet at a time: a facet for Facebook, a facet for 4Chan, more facets for other places. “Anonymity is authenticity,” says Poole. “It allows you to share in an unvarnished, unfiltered, raw and real way.”  The truest facet is the hidden one—the dark side of the moon.

4Chan is a community of affinities of what the LinkedIn Body holds in privacy—a water cooler in the dark. 4Chan lives in symbiosis with the LinkedIn Body. It is the private parts of social media, or a glory hole for them. On 4Chan the dicks aren’t in the khakis. They’re out there! It’s the faces that are clad—in Guy Fawkes-type masks.

Both Zuckerberg and Poole are interested in preserving the social status quo through online communities. If one of them is radical it’s Zuckerberg, who wants to eradicate privacy and make public life—professional life—the whole life.

Zuckerberg’s “integrity” and Poole’s raw and real authenticity are spatial conceptions of selfhood derived from the liberal ideal of the subject—an autonomous agent within a bounding line, acting consciously and consistently as the embodiment of principles. Mirrors or diamonds, the pictures of the self that Zuckerberg and Poole like have hard, definite edges—inorganic and discrete.

A LinkedIn identity—Zuckerberg’s integrity—accommodates growth and change but only along a linear path. The change allowed is change in the sense of professional development, or the stepwise movement down the drop-down menu’s options from “single” to “in a relationship” to “engaged” to “married”—it’s better not to muck around in the grab bag below! Facebook’s Timeline tracks life as a chronicle where, when viewed retrospectively, one thing led to another with the inevitability of linear progression. It disposes with the narrative possibilities of biography that can be open to contingencies and the past possibility of other stories, other paths. The Timeline, like the pruned achievements of the LinkedIn page, is a bounding line, delineating people as agents within a nicely rounded public sphere.

But the remarkable thing about social media is its potential to undermine old conceptions of selfhood, by making space for a record of utterances and images of the body that are immediately public and visible, revealing change and the contingency of selfhood is an unvarnished, unfiltered way, as Poole might say. Social media turns the public sphere inside out, collapses and deflates it—the private mingles with the public in the leftover mess. Zuckerburg would clean up that mess by vacuuming the private parts—my dick jokes!—and discarding them; Poole would like to sift the public from the private and glue them to facets of diamonds to keep them apart. But what’s wrong with being real and raw without anonymity? What’s wrong with the real and raw abject dreck of bodies (selves) being with and changing with one another? “You have one identity,” Zuckerberg says, and he’s right—what he’s wrong about is the shape of it; what he misses is its shapelessness.

You only live once. You have one self, one body—and the contact of your self with the world is bound the position of its body in space in time. But singularity shouldn’t be mistaken for stability or solidity. Positions in space and time are always changing, and the self and the body—though one—are always changing with them, always changing with others. Authenticity is bound up in ideals of stability and consistency, but real and raw authenticity is the truth of change, the reality of multiplicity within singularity, the contingency of life.

Life is what happens around LinkedIn but LinkedIn makes it look like the bit of life it records is the one that matters. Facebook adds a film of friendliness to make it feel like LinkedIn living is all there is to life.

Lots of people feel good about their LinkedIn Bodies; lots of people are fine with Facebook.

Lots of people out there hate Life.

***

APPENDIX: Sample CV

1984: Made applesauce in pre-school; teacher said not to put plastic knife in mouth; put plastic knife in mouth to eat a tiny bit of apple; cried, not because cut self but because disobeyed. Skills utilized: Yielding to temptation, crying

1994: Viewed mother’s emaciated corpse. Skills acquired: Skepticism toward medical knowledge, indifference regarding death

1997: Saw therapist weekly; therapist said I only had to talk to him if I wanted to; sat through all sessions in silence; therapist said I didn’t have to keep coming. Skills utilized: Skepticism toward medical knowledge

2000: Did not have sex in twentieth century. Skills acquired: None

2005: Slept with friend’s ex; made people angry. Skills acquired: Rudimentary understanding of emotions associated with romantic relationships

2006: Invited friends over for a small gathering; three guests arrived early and proceeded to have threesome in my bed; tried to get them to stop but could not until other guests rang the buzzer; one of the sex guys ran into bathroom naked and vomited in tub. Skills utilized: None (someone else cleaned the tub for me)

2007: Black eye obtained when beaten by Miami Beach police officer. Skills acquired: Don’t spit at cops even when repeatedly asked: “Do you have AIDS?”

2012-present: Took many selfies. Skills utilized: Social media optimization

Yelp and Criticism

As I see it, there are three things that art criticism can do:

1) Art criticism can measure a work of art against critical and philosophical principles (which can include ideas about art’s progressive historical development) to determine its worth. This is considered the ideal form of criticism, the task it performed at its origins in a hazy heroic past. When this kind of criticism is written today it usually involves determining whether art is politically progressive or reactionary, and often applies critiques that have been around for forty years.

2) Art criticism can give a detailed description of a work’s appearance (or, if it is a performance or a video or something else that changes over time, an account of those changes), elaborate the artist’s intent and references, and suggest the work’s implications for its social and cultural contexts. Now that holding firm, unwavering philosophical and critical principles of aesthetics (or subscribing to a viewpoint of a linear progression of art history) is considered reactionary and elitist, this is the form that art criticism takes in periodicals (newspapers, magazines, semi-professional blogs). This is also the preferred mode of discourse for press releases, museum wall texts, and other printed matter that officially accompanies exhibitions. When the main task of this kind of criticism is to index an artwork, the writing is bland. When its main task is to describe, it is didactic. It is often a mix of both.

3) Art criticism can take the form of narrative. It can be a story about the contingencies that cling to a work when art meets life. This is the critical biography, the monographic study of an artist’s life and work and the effects of the two on each other. In shorter forms this is some of my favorite art writing—the writing of Chris Kraus, John Kelsey, and the people who invented Scene & Herd (Jack Bankowsky, Rhonda Lieberman, David Rimanelli) as feuilletons about art and its social contexts.

Narrative is pretty cool. Narrative sits next to (ahead of?) quantification/rationalization as a basic (the basic?) means of understanding the world. It situates perceptions in space and time and makes it possible to share them. Narrative is so basic that it’s the default mode of discourse for all the non-art, non-professional criticism found on Amazon, Yelp, and other sites that solicit reviews and ratings. People don’t just evaluate the goods and services and give detached, principled reasons for their ratings. They tell stories—to no one in particular—about their experiences of consumption. They tell stories that incorporate all the contingencies and particularities of an individual life, numbed by the anonymity of the generalized design.

What does Yelp do to art? It is a medium for translating the experience of seeing art into the internet vernacular of consumption narratives. Why Yelp art? The art world has expanded rapidly in the last decade. So many artists! So many galleries! So many non-profits, vanity museums, museum expansions—so many visitors! What is the art critic to do? He has three choices. Art Criticism #1 provides a reusable template. Just figure out your standards, measure any work against them, and BOOM!—you got a review! But this easily descends into hackwork and bloviation, especially in these times, when the rigid position of Art Critic #1 is undermined by the plurality of voices and viewpoints in the inclusive art world. Art Criticism #3 still works but to be really good it requires sustained close attention to a very small number of artists. So you get accused of only writing about your friends, and you can’t write about them often enough to get published regularly. Art Criticism #2 is the reasonable response. It is also the boring response. Art Criticism #2 is so boring that few people read it seriously, let alone remember it. It becomes decorative—filler for CVs, reasons for selling ads, the textual support for reproductions.

I’m interested in what it means to be an unprofessional art critic. Not an amateur but someone who would be a professional if he didn’t reject the codes and standards of professionalism. So what does it mean?? Some ideas: Writing about a lot of art, in all its variety, like a newspaper critic. BUT. Writing about art quickly and badly, like a hack. Writing about art honestly, like a baby. Writing for no money, like a poet. Writing for no one (and everyone), like a regular user. Yelp is a format that welcomes and encourages all of these kinds of writing. It also offers a way of writing about the explosive growth of the art world that doesn’t take it for granted. It offers a way to address it obliquely—by wearing the skin of a consumer navigating a market of great plenty, with the wonder of a browser who can’t buy any of it. That’s an easy skin for me to wear because that’s how I already live.