GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 23, 2020

Maximal Addressability within the Field of Sample Utterances

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:58 am

I found myself with the phrase constituting the title of this post at the end of my previous post, as a distillation of the pedagogical order to be strapped into the technomedia order, a distillation that takes the form of sample utterances within a field of utterances. Everything is samples, signs, or utterances—even the most vigorous action in the sense of physical action in the real world involving lots of people only makes sense, has effects, is recorded, remembered and institutionalized insofar as it takes the form of signs and generates other signs. So, the “best,” or most powerful, or durable sample is the one that makes other samples maximally addressable and is so itself. Every utterance has its addressees—a greeting addresses the visitor, a command addresses the subordinate, a broadcast addresses all within range. The addressee is part of the meaning of the utterance—most obviously, ostensives and imperatives require presence, but declaratives only take on their meaning insofar as they address a disciplinary space, real or potential (the real/potential distinction is probably not worth holding onto any more than the technology/media one).

The field of addressees can’t be completely determined in advance—which means that meaning can never be determined once and for all—meaning is always the articulation of a hypothesis. Anyone can claim to be the addressee of a particular utterance and act accordingly—not always with equal success. But the chances of success can be improved. This is the field of ethical and moral decision and acting. You’re addressed by everything you see and hear—it’s just a question of what kind of addressee you’re going to be. A mugger tells an old lady to give him her handbag—his command, as far as he’s concerned, addresses her, but if you see and hear it you become an addressee. Are you addressed as a participant who will interfere with the event, as a detached spectator, an observant witness? That will depend on what you do, and what you do will in turn address others. The moral or, to stick with Wierzbicka’s primes, the good thing to do is to make that mugger’s utterance (and the victim’s utterances—resistance, cries for help, paralysis through fear) maximally addressable—but that doesn’t necessarily mean the most direct and immediately impactful action. Getting yourself along with the old lady killed is not the best move, even if there are situations in which the imperative is to take that risk. The real question is what will spread and embed the signs of this event across the semiotic field, to represent everything that happens as a possibility that transforms the entire field of possibilities. This, again, doesn’t tell you exactly what to do, but it does, first of all, militate against certain responses—running away and remaining silent about the crime, for example.

The search for maximal addressability is the discovery procedure for eliciting the imperative of the center. If I’m young, strong, and trained in the martial arts I can turn the scene into a rescue operation and sign of the potential of informal, participatory modes of order maintenance. If I’m incapable, I can call for help and remain in proximity to help the victim afterward; I can remember as much as I can to help catch and punish the perpetrator. In either case, the better I set an example, the more meaning I confer on the scene, the more closely I am conforming to the imperative of the center—I’m formalizing myself as rescuer, or witness, or caregiver or some other role in a way that others can play that same role. The imperative to create maximal addressability scales up, even if things get more complex. To determine which utterances to take as addressing you and what kind of addressee to be follows from your calculations regarding your own maximal addressability, as citizen, tribune, historian, theorist, curator of likely forgotten utterances for the future, etc. Imagine someone, an hour from now, a year from now, a century from now, seeking out the utterance he could make and that would make him maximally addressable across the field of utterances, formulating the most precise and expansive search of the cloud possible at that moment that would provide him with that utterance, coming across yours. That’s the sample you want to “emit”; that would be obeying to the fullest extent possible the imperative of the center.

Maximal addressability means not only responding to a declarative with a binary (yes/no, true/false) or even with another declarative that would further surface in its richness the imperative studied by the first declarative but also to find a way to obey that imperative even in the form of your declarative, by narrowing down the ostensive (“referent”) to be sought, supplied or hypothesized in confirmation of the completion of that imperative. It is to be the ostensive that would make the declarative maximally addressable, even while sustaining the complexity and openness of the declarative order precisely in order to initiate new searches into the tacitly maintained projects that have become invisible but might need to be surfaced and continued at any time. It means that your statements of fact are also promises, and your promises are also hypotheses, and that this layered character of each utterance, is existence in the imperative-ostensive world and declarative order alike, is inscribed in ways that require the maximal addressability of other to be iterated.

Maximal addressability is always separated by a thin boundary from a failure of address—“too much” addressability tips over into the absurd and unintelligible. The oscillation between maximal addressability and failure of address is the aesthetics of address: saturating the space of address always involves elements of failure to address, in order to mark that saturation. Any meaning displaces some other meaning, and in doing so marks the displaced meaning as a prepping for mimetic convergence. Maximal addressability means signaling a readiness to give the sign a chance, and this can only be done by indicating the possible consequences of giving up on the sign. The boundary between maximal addressability and the various possible failures of address is the site of thought experiments and hypotheses, constitutive of the utterance itself. You follow the imperative of the center by distinguishing your adherence from possible “rebellions,” “failures of nerve,” misfires, and so on. You can think about this as paying the maximum possible amount of attention to some interlocutor or source of messages while simultaneously encouraging the interlocutor or allowing the message to command your attention and that of others in ways that create multiple vectors of address—while modeling this posture for others. Or as responding to an utterance in such a way as to make it memorable, worthy of being remembered, and more likely to be remembered to the extent that other find themselves addressed by it.

One way of thinking about a highly formalized and ritualized order is that it provides formulas for all possible modes of address. Everyone has a “dense” name, in the sense that your name includes all possible addresses to and from the community. Imagine a given name that includes references to all your kinship relations, and that then accrues new names through the successive roles one is initiated into in the community, along with “nicknames” noting the particular abilities, proclivities, and accomplishments that aren’t reducible to formal roles. I don’t know if any community ever existing actually had such names, but some certainly approximated it much more closely than others. And the de-sacralized “modern” order is as far from such a fully named order as it is possible to be. One could say that the most important and powerful desire is to have such a name—to be saturated by recognition. Even humiliating recognition is better than no recognition at all. The problem of maximal addressability could only be raised in a de-sacralized order, and it is a response to it.

The modes of address prevalent in de-sacralized orders are created by the disciplines—law, politics, economics, education, psychiatry, and so on. We are citizens, legal subjects, workers or businessmen, high-school dropouts or PhDs, “on the spectrum,” “neuro-atypical” and so on. These modes of address were, first of all, the basis of statistics, originally a way for the state to keep records and order in the wake of the fraying and then breakdown of traditional communities in which modes of address were contained by kin and liturgical affiliations. These statistics produce data, which in the age of planetary computation can all be preserved and easily accessed in various configurations, by various agencies, for various purposes. Models of order (safety, health, wealth, aptitude, etc.) are used to search and shape data flows, which leads to each of us being addressed in specific ways. You could say we’re being addressed by vectors of data flow, but also by models of activity. Facebook constructs a model of a particular kind of political identity (“liberal,” “conservative”) and then ensures that news items that feed into your identity find their way to you. The same obviously holds true for musical tastes, vacations, potential romantic partners and so on. This is where the decisions regarding how to be addressable show up.

The question of “political agency,” then, or “self-appification,” is to be found in the contribution one can make to constructing the models shaping and directing data flows. The algorithms governing data flows are revised by the feedback the machines receive from the users they serve. You can see that you are being labeled as a “conservative,” and so you can through your online searches and purchases scramble with the model and evade any particular model. In that case you become the model that might shape the data for others. This is a model of praxis: maximizing your addressability by the algorithm so that the algorithm can only process your activity by elevating you to a model for others. If we were to think of this as an organized, collective practice, it might be very practical. So, the question becomes, how to maximize addressability by the algorithm? You could think this as simulating a particular kind of person who evades the algorithm’s radar or over-saturates it. But a “type of person” which can named by a cliché “(“courageous,” “generous,” intelligent,” “inquisitive,” etc.) would quickly be captured by the algorithm and brought into conformity with its other models.

I would suggest confronting the data in a more Dadaist way. I’m going to be putting together something like a “logic,” using Wierzbicka’s primes, among other things. I’ve already said in Anthropomorphicsthat what is more important than the mere proof that all languages have words with these meanings in them is that the “prime” meaning of these words is best derived from the relations between them in basic possible sentences. So, for example, ordinarily one thinksbefore one sayssomething, and it seems like one hasn’t, that is something to be remarked upon. To say that one thinks before saying is not to make an empirical observation (in which case, philosophy or cognitive psychology style, we’d have to start looking for “evidence” of thinking prior to saying) but to posit a right order of things. We could say to someone to whom things seem to be always happeningthat at some point he needs todosomething. Before saying that youwantsomething you should knowwhat it is. Various combinations of the primes would produce all the proverbs, aphorisms and maxims of action we would need; and, of course, lots of other combinations would produce all kinds of playful paradoxes and nonsense. The more I do, the more things happen to me; I can only know what I wanted after I do something; you can say what you think but can you think what you say; etc. This is the material out of which design practices of self-appification can be constructed: you can enter the data stream as the type of person who turns what he does into happenings by hearing what he says before he says it (for example). Then the work of translation begins—translation into an idiosyncratic form of the idiom of any discipline. Being someone who does things that happen by hearing what he says before he says it and wanting what he can’t know (for example) would take on different forms in finance, sociology, psychology, law and so on. You can be sure that any idiom can always be reduced to some relation between wanting and knowing and thinking and saying and doing and happening, etc. And these little (or maybe not always so little) Dada-fied sentences can certainly be spread across the whole field of mimological impressments, introducing new mimical twists requiring new approaches to address. Here is how unseen layers of addressability get surfaced, and our pursuit of the imperative of the center into its lair prosecuted.

Think about it this way—anything you do comes preframed by a set of expectations, your own and others. If the expectations are reasonable, there’s no dishonor in simply meeting them. Just meeting them, though, means that the limitation implicit in those expectations goes unexplored, and other courses of action are never examined, much less taken. Just refusing and defying expectations, though, makes you even more sharply defined and severely limited by them—that’s really what “resentment” is, refusing any input into your decisions and actions that you can’t claim is completely your own. But you can revise the expectations, so as to raise them, for yourself and others. This means, first of all, acknowledging the fundamental legitimacy of expectations and, second, subjecting them to experimental practices. Expectations imposed on you subject you to a model: be like this, you are told. If you’re going to change or destroy the model, you better be sure you’re going to leave something better in its place. To become “like” some model, or a composite of successful or admirable actions or lives, is to treat it as a sum total of postures, gestures and utterances that may exceed the sum of its parts but nevertheless contains the sum. Each posture, gesture or utterance tells you: do this. So, the question is, what is “this,” “here” and “now” (as opposed to “then” and “there,” in the world of the model). You take all of the parts seriously, including the ones that seem to you dysfunctional or obsolete—maybe you’re right, but start with the assumption that you’re missing something. (In the process, you come to think about how you might eventually be worthy of incorporation into a future model.) You read all the parts generously, you work them all over, you preserve every bit of them you can in your iterations, even the parts you aren’t so sure about which you perhaps incorporate as a kind of “loyal opposition” to your own projects. You defend the model against its detractors, even if you’re not sure your arguments are as compelling as theirs—maybe you haven’t yet formulated the more compelling arguments. You can turn out to be entirely wrong, and you may have to junk a particular model completely, but that will only be because you’ve become subject to a new one that preserves everything you’ve crystallized from the previous one along with some new “parts” or more of more than the sum of them than the previous model. This is maximal addressability. You accept your subordination to models and their imperatives, and you do so by carrying forward those models in ways those “inputting” to those models couldn’t have anticipated, and you do so in such a way that others can do the same with and for you.

October 13, 2020

Scenic Design Practices

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:59 am

It seems to me that we’ve gotten to the point, with the emergence of computing as a “metamedia,” where there’s no basis for distinguishing between “media” and “technology.” All media, including the most basic, such as speech, gesture and writing, are implicated in the vast array of recording and monitoring technologies, and as subject to algorithmic governance or “planetary scale computation” as anything else; while all technology is now dependent on code (itself a form of literacy) and contributes to the spatial arrangement of human activity no less than media such as buildings and cinema. And we can include “infrastructure” in this as well. Drawing, then, upon the understanding of “media” I proposed in Anthropomorphics, as all the means of constituting scenes, and the understanding of “technology” I proposed, that is, as the articulation of desacralized and abstracted human practices, I would synthesize it all as “scenic design practices.” Every practice is designing a scene; or, really, redesigning a scene, or some portion of a scene, with the techno-media (this term to be revised presently) available. This would include all practices, large and small, carried out by the powerless as well as the powerful, obviously with different effects and constraints across the spectrum.

I’m a little, most indirectly, familiar with some of the more significant contemporary theorists of technology, such as Gilbert Simondon, Bernard Stiegler and Freidrich Kittler, each of whom reaches back into other traditions of thought, and I’ll be doing more reading here, but I’ve already got some sense of where anthropomorphics will differ from and offer something unthought by these other approaches, so I’ll lay down some of that thinking here. The first “medium,” of course, was the scene constructed and embodied as the originary scene, part and parcel of the emergence of the sign, which I would see expansively as the posture as well as gesture of an entire human body conforming itself in real time to the postures and gestures of an emergent community of other humans. (One could always draw the boundary between sign and scene/media differently.) The first tool, or implement, meanwhile, would have had to have been some ritual enhancing “device,” that is to say, something that would materialize the memory of the originary scene by drawing or enhancing the boundary between center and periphery. A circle of bones, perhaps, marking the ritual space, eventually something like an altar, and whatever materials might have gone into constructing a permanent likeness of the central figure. Maintaining the means of ritual would involve the development of “skills,” which is to say repeatable movements that can be transmitted to others and perfected, and the creation of increasingly differentiated and specialized “tools,” which would always be bound up with sacred purposes. The real “instructor” here would be the central figure itself, who teaches the community how to create and use the tools in accord with ritual prescriptions. And, of course, myths would be generated explaining how some sacred figure provided the community with these tools and prescriptions. Since each new element of ritual must have displaced a previous one, it makes sense that such myths are often associated with some kind of transgression, an aura which until modern times has always surrounded knowledge or technical innovation.

This would all hold true for the development of weapons used for hunting and war, all of which would involve the same intimate, imperative relation to the gods and ancestors and the prescriptions and tools for building altars and conducting rituals. I’m assuming that nothing can be outside of the ritual-mythic nexus, a very tightly bound up system of imperative exchange, until the emergence of the ancient empires and their serial destruction of local communities with the mass enslavement of their populations (of course, as Engels observed a long time ago, enslavement was an alternative to extermination, once the ruler became powerful enough to make use of subjugated populations). We now have vast populations excluded from the ritual center, which means that anything can be done to or with them. It is at this point, I’m hypothesizing, that we can start to speak of “technology,” as the direct, i.e., de-sacralized and de-ritualized aggregations of humans who can be combined in an orderly way for concentrated purposes involving the use and transformation of “nature.” As Nitzan and Bichler point out, referring to Mumford in Capital as Power, the very conception of technology is an effect of power: seeing all this “labor power” at your disposal would inflame the imagination.

This imaginative impulse is both constructive and pulverizing. Not only does it afford massive and complex structures, but also for continual grinding up into ever more minute particles. “Analysis” is a result of this. So, we can take any scene and treat it as a media apparatus which is simultaneously one small piece of much larger apparatuses, but can itself be broken down into any number of mini-apparatuses. I use the word “treat” here rather than, say, “view,” because to treat something is to change it in some very specific way, to prepare it for a particular use. Insofar as we treat the scenes we inhabit or infiltrate as an articulation of design practices, we are participating in those practices. We’re designing the scenic features that will more or less eventually go into the production of some utterance, or sample. If you’re rich and powerful, this might entail organizing a studio, hiring specific kinds of directors, getting certain performers under contract, hiring publicity people to create and maintain a brand, so that you get to the point where your design issues in a movie in which a particular actor stands in a particular way, on a particular scene, and says something, which a designed for audience will hear and pass on in various ways to secondary and tertiary audiences. Designing algorithmic orders that make it more probable that certain items turn up in a search is an even more obvious example. And this entire configuration can continually be redesigned.  If you’re essentially powerless, like most of us, the appropriation of design practices nevertheless gives you a way of thinking about how to spend your time and energy—in various ways, you’re contributing to the construction and maintenance of a range of scenes, and the more precise you get about the samples you’d most like to generate, the more effectively you can think where to replace certain scenic elements with others so as to bring about resonant attentional shifts. The powerless can do this because the mega-machines into whose service we have been pressed require the “pieces” to take some initiatives and assume some responsibilities.

The design of assignments for students in pedagogical situations provide as good an example of design practices as anything else I can think of. (I’ll issue my customary broadside against my academic colleagues and point out that, even though this is their main job, in my experience very, very few of them give this any disciplined thought at all. They ask students to do what they imagine themselves doing, thereby favoring the students best able to mimic their own gestures.) The purpose of an assignment is to have the students learn how to do something that they could only have learned how to do laboriously or even serendipitously without the assignment, with the thing they learn to do also being something they will not only have to do very often in other situations, but that will also be a condition for them to do a lot of other things. This is what makes an assignment, to use a little bit of contemporary pedagogical jargon, “high-impact.”

For one thing (I’m speaking about my own field, “freshman comp,” here), this requires breaking down “academic reading and writing,” i.e., a particular advanced form of literacy that is best defined in terms of the continuous production of nominalizations that function as subjects and objects of sentences in a hierarchical system of distributed citationality. (In “academic discourse,” “a hierarchal system of distributed citationality” readily becomes the subject of a sentence—so, what has to be learned, for example, is what does “a hierarchical system of distributed citationality” do; that is, what verbs does one put after it? What is it like, i.e., which adjectives modify it, etc.?) More simply, academic discourse is characterized by vast reserves of implicit references to disciplinary conversations in the abbreviated form of their stored conceptual innovations. You break this down by defining the practice you want rehearsed (say, distinguishing “distributed citationality” from something significantly other to it) against the “epistemological obstacles” that interfere with performing it. Those obstacles are located in the mythical language of everyday life, where “Big Scenic thinking” prevails, and one relies on the dictionary meaning of words and imagines oneself “agreeing” and “disagreeing” with discrete statements, and therefore having “opinions,” “viewpoints,” and so on, rather than working out the implications of a concept. So, the assignment stages confrontations between the epistemological obstacles of mythical everyday discourse, on the one hand, and the language of some disciplinary space, on the other. This produces an “inter-language,” where we find the learner using everyday vocabulary in the grammar of the disciplinary discourse and the vocabulary of disciplinary discourse in the grammar of everyday language. The inter-language now becomes the center of the disciplinary space, as the students construct a vocabulary and grammar to describe and analyze it, thereby preparing themselves to move self-reflexively into other disciplinary spaces.

Now, all this is on a small scale—a class with one teacher and 15-20 students occupying the same space. But the practice of staging confrontations between Big Scenic, mythical thinking and emergent disciplinary spaces which expose the limits of Big Scenic thinking can be scaled up as large as one likes. This is the way to think about tweeting, blogging, constructing websites, publishing, even the creation of new currencies, political organization, or anything else we might be doing. Everything is the staging of pedagogical hypotheses that will in turn generate resonant, ramified hypotheses of and against the Big Scene. This entails hypothesizing the vast range of possible responses to what you might do, and how you might interfere with that field of possible responses so as to facilitate more encounters between the Big Scene and disciplinary practices. This is no doubt why trolling has become such a prominent, almost all-inclusive feature of social media and more traditional practices that have been transformed by the social media ecology—trolling is aimed at generating responses you can then use so as to compose an utterance that will generate more responses you can use… The problem with trolling is that it locks everyone into their initial positions, whereas it is better to open up new positions.

You can then, imagine yourself not so much giving an assignment across the techno-media or field of scenic design practices (after all, who are you to give others assignments?) but as performing some assignment that provides an example for others. This is the only way through the “technological world picture,” and through Capital, for that matter, which also depends upon Big Scenic mythology. The iterative center assigns to each of us the practice that will distinguish it from the sacrificial remnants chewed over in Big Scenic thinking insofar as you specifically complete the practice. And that practice is some scenic design practice that will translate that same assignment into some other institutionally, infrastructurally mediated scene.  The translation will be the creation of the scene, the transference of some vocabulary within some grammar to another technological idiom. You do this by translating the constraints and affordances of platforms into imperatives and questions to be redesigned as assignments. Such practices entail inquiring into the scenic design practices that have produced each and every one of us. A constant pulverizing has been going on since the ancient empires—the Axial Age was a limited response to that, but we still haven’t seen anything better. What would be better is not trying to pick up all the pieces and put them back together again, but treating the pieces (habits that program us to try and get our rightful slice of the central object) as materials for scenic design that will have us all looking to help one another find our respective name and place. We all have some place we should be, and some name we should inhabit, and we can only find our name and place within a social order designed to produce scenes that afford such findings.

Maybe we could call the “techno-media” the field of “mimological impressments” upon which scenic design practices operate. “Mimological” derives from Marcel Jousse’s “mimisms,” which is a concept that enables us to identify any human action as an articulation of infinitesimal gestures rooted in imitation; the word “impressment” means coerced recruitment into some military or industrial mega-machine, but property can also be impressed, and therefore so can anything in the natural world, all of which is pressed into service; but, even more, if we abstract the word “impress” from impressment, we have the (admittedly secondary) meaning of making a mark on something, with the something being the resources of the world subject to (transformed into resources by) the operations of the sciences, and the mark being made by some mimological arrangement. All of “nature” is made to imitate the forms of human activity, and that activity is further pulverized into new mimisms in imitation of the new impressments. Drawing on my previous post, I’ll suggest that the “assignment” here is to treat our entanglements with mimological impressments as both liminally obsolete and still under construction. This allows us to defer the demands of imperative exchanges mimological impressments impose on us—it provides a space for studying what it means to be “on” Twitter, or Facebook, or Google, or a blog and turning the demands of these spaces into platforms for staging pedagogical scenes that show where the boundaries between one scene and others lie. (The same holds, even if more indirectly, and through a different kind of operational chain, for building bridges and roads, or weapons, or buildings—it’s all scenic constitution through mimological impressments.) Once you identify a boundary, you can imaginatively, thought-experimentally, place some thing in an oscillatory relation to the respective sides of the boundary. So you take the same sample (utterance, statement, meme, icon, imperative…) and treat it as belonging to different spaces. (The simplest example: some statement or action that would be sign of madness on one scene but of genius on another—this allows you to assess the statement, and the respective scenes, and to respond to the statement or one “similar” to it so as to further test the hypothesis.) Ultimately, if you do enough of this, and bring enough and the right others into doing enough of this, you’ve established a discovery procedure for fulfilling the imperative of the center. Everyone would just be interested in compiling sample utterances in such a way that all participants find themselves maximally addressed by them.

October 4, 2020

The Aesthetic as Liminally Scenic

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:26 am

The “classical” understanding of the aesthetic in GA is that it derives from the oscillation on the originary scene between attention paid to the sign pointing to the central object, on the one hand, and the object itself, on the other. I’ve addressed some of the implications of this understanding in various places (including Anthropomorphics), but what I’d like to focus on here is the fact that the aesthetic is located prior to the establishment of the sacred center—the aesthetic, that is, is pre-sacral, or perhaps preliminarily sacral. Moreover, while the aesthetic, up until the displacement of the shared sacred center, would have been assimilated to the sacred (amplifying it, contributing to the intentionality of sacred being, providing access to it by congregants, etc.) the aesthetic, in the form of art, only emerges after the sacred center has lost its monopoly on the community’s attention. The aesthetic, in that case, supplements the center, first of all by providing something “like” a rite both in its own structure and for those participating as spectators (the purgative effect of tragedy, with its own sacrificial conclusion, is the obvious example here)—while at the same time enacting the transition out of a ritualistic order.

So, we could say that the aesthetic uses the study of the practices that might culminate in the construction of a shared center to demonstrate the provisionality of that center. This allows us to follow up on the periodization of artistic practices laid out by Eric Gans in his Originary Thinking, along with my own revisions of it in a way that might help us think about aesthetics and artistic possibilities today. Gans first of all distinguishes between the “classical” and the “neo-classical” aesthetic. In the classic aesthetic (associated with Greek tragedy), the audience is essentially an extension of the theatrical scene, responding directly to the central figure, who is unquestionably “central.” We don’t need to be reminded why Oedipus or Agamemnon is worthy of our undivided attention—it’s a cultural given presupposed by the performance. (Of course, ancient comedy, which placed an “unworthy” figure at the center, would presumably have already reminded theatergoers of the “de-sacralizable” nature of the scene.) In neoclassical Shakespearean tragedy, for example, the scene itself is represented within the work, in the sense that ruling is seen to take place on a kind of stage of which the “actors” are aware, which also means the occupancy of the center by this particular individual is always questionable. This also means (although I don’t think this is part of Gans’s point) that, although the audience is not directly responsive to the scene, it is represented within the scene, as we see in the various kinds of explicit and implicit commentaries on the central scene in Shakespeare’s plays.

We can already see the possibility of discussing the history of aesthetics as the history of revisions of the boundary between art work and audience or public. And this history parallels the history of the increasing uncertainty regarding who and what can be placed at the center. If art is a practice of deritualization by exposing the preliminary practices of ritualization (showing what leads or inclines us to put something in the center, and then aborting that effort), then it makes sense that the boundary between art work and public would itself become more visible and permeable. The relation between artist, work and public becomes a shared inquiry into the consequences of placing this or that object or figure at the center in this or that way, under these or those conditions. The resistance to figural art and straightforward representations of beauty—the reason such representations get denounced as “kitsch”—is that they are cynical attempts to simulate the sacral scene, which is precisely what art does not and cannot do.

So, the Romantic artist sets himself off against the community, mimicking the scapegoated Jesus, while also inviting other “rebels” to cross over that boundary and join in rediscovering the forms of natural and transcendent beauty occluded by the market, which reduces everything to its price. For various reasons, Romantic poetry became central to the literary criticism branch of deconstruction, and one of the important contributions of critics like Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller was to show that the Romantic “quest” contradicted and undermined itself—its discourse of authenticity, self-centrality, and unmediated relation to a pre-social nature was undermined by the inability of “expressive” language to do anything more than reiterate the fraudulent centrality it tried to define itself against. Gans refers to the “constituent hypocrisy” of Romanticism in this connection, as self-aggrandizement (and market value) is enabled by a performance of self-expulsion from the community. The later work of some important Romantics like Wordsworth and Byron is aware of this. The Romantic individual is finally ground up once and for all in literary realism, which almost invariably centers on some Romantic individual having his or her dreams contradicted at every point by the institutions and disciplines of the modern world to the point of an essentially meaningless destruction or death. We could see realism as mimicking human sacrifice, as we derive meaning from the immolation of the figure placed at the center, but, since that figure has been exposed as alienated from his own intentions, the sacred has been emptied out, making it more of an anti-sacrifice.

We could see much of artistic modernism as an intensification of this struggle against the community, with the fantasy of a new mass revolutionary subject (or, for the modernist reactionaries, the restoration of some version of antiquity) that would abolish the boundary between art work and public once and for all. One could say this made modern art far more esoteric and exclusive than Romantic art, which didn’t really question traditional genres, modes of representation, or the autonomy of art. But modernist antagonism to social institutions included an antagonism to the institutions of art themselves, which in turn facilitated the more radical questioning of the boundary between art and non-art. Duchamp’s “Fountain” stunt is the convenient starting point for those narrating this line of development. This makes art explicitly social and historical, as art has to address the question of what is to count as art under contemporary conditions. Postmodernism’s destabilizing of boundaries between genres, between artist and audience, between “mass culture” and “art” is all part of this bringing to the center the boundary between what is art and what is not art. I think that Joseph Beuy’s notion of “social sculpture,” in which art openly models the remaking social reality and, especially, Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings,” which introduce subtle modifications into everyday practices so as reveal boundaries between habit and innovation, mimisms and modeling, represent the endpoints of explicitly formalizing the boundary between art and non-art: art becomes a question of drawing attention to shifts in attention.

I have previously developed this argument in the direction of what I’ve called “originary satire,” which would be aimed at identifying and enacting a minimal difference with established centering practices so as to reveal unthought layers of mimesis (“mimisms”) implicit in disciplinary practices of centering—for example, the very notion of “modeling,” with its ambiguity between using another practice to shape your own, on the one hand, and shaping other practices so as install your own, is generative of originary satire. Whoever you claim to be is how you are enacting yourself so as draw others into the projection of a world that ensures that you are who you are. The practice of exposing these paradoxes draws us into the paradox of the center, which produces us as we construct spaces conducive to our production.

I’d like to explore another aesthetic possibility here, though. The pre- and extra-,  or, let’s say, liminally scenic dimension of the aesthetic, once separated from increasingly desperate attempts to sacralize mundane centers, suggests the aesthetic power of forms of incompletion, obsolescence and ruin. What is aesthetically compelling, that is, what places and keeps us in an oscillatory relation to the center, are incomplete gestures and gestures that linger after the object they pointed to is no longer there. An abandoned construction site, for example; or an abandoned old mill. In these abandoned, left aside buildings, we see concentrated purposes that collided with other, ultimately even more concentrated purposes: in the case of the construction site, perhaps a transfer of investment funds to other projects midway, or conflicts with regulatory bodies; with the mill, new modes of production that could find no further use for this structure, perhaps because it was too perfectly fitted for its own purposes.

Now, the abandoned mill is already a romantic cliché, and the removal of a useful object from its context of use and turning it into an object of contemplation already a well-worn artistic exercise. The construction site much less so, though. Completed purposes that have been left off much better fit the Kantian aesthetic ideal of “purposeful purposelessness”—the abandoned construction site might be purposeless, but not very purposeful. So, let’s say that instead of the abandoned mill, or, more generally, identifiable ruins, we pair the construction site with indeterminate ruins, in which possible patterns could be detected and various possible former uses hypothesized. In this case, we can’t imaginatively complete or supplement the original intention in any way that could compel consensus. The point is not a work of art before which you stand, stupefied, but which helps you sustain the oscillation necessary for the further generation of hypotheses.

I’m going to suggest that an effectively oscillatory aesthetic should articulate the incomplete and the indeterminate ruins in one. I suppose that originary satire applies more to the verbal, dramatic and narrative arts, while what maybe we could call “archi-texture” applies to the plastic arts, but more especially architecture itself. When we build something, we are aware of all the unfinished construction sites that made it possible, that were negated or incorporated in revised form in the finished product; we can also be aware that sometime, in the future, whatever we build will be in ruins, with some future archaeologist left to figure out what it might have been, and how it might have fit into a form of life that can now only be hypothetically reconstructed. The artistic principle here is that the structure must include its proleptic “remainsness” along with its negated false starts. And, for that matter, this principle can apply to linguistically based arts as well.

This would incorporate oscillation around the present in what we build and implicate the participants in such structures in the now visible choices that have been made, and future ruinous states now to be deferred. If you can think in terms of how what you have built might be made intelligible, even in fragments, to some future civilization, it might help you to think of how to delay that eventuality, because it requires you to accentuate what is meaningful in everything you do. Similarly, incorporating the false starts keeps faith with the workers and thinkers of the past, recognizing intentions and efforts that, through no fault of their own, couldn’t be fulfilled—also a helpful way to think of your relation to some future inquirer. Participation and pedagogy are thereby maximized.

What, exactly, would such structures look like? We don’t want grotesques, after all. First of all, I imagine buildings would leave in place some of its scaffolding, including scaffolding that ended up scaffolding something that didn’t end up being part of the building. The leftover scaffolding itself would be become an object of attention, as it gets in the way and ends up getting used in unanticipated ways. It could even get, inevitably ironically, “beautified.” And buildings should incorporate elements, not necessarily completely integrated, that point to structures or land uses that preceded their construction, and others which refer to its surroundings—clues for future archaeologists. It should include, not too ostentatiously, what will be taken to be “futuristic” elements, so the archaeologists of the future can see what the future looked like back then. But there should be enough proleptic remainsness to “sufficiently” increase the possibility that there will be heterogeneous pieces for that future archaeologist to assemble, and to prevent too easy conclusions from being drawn. Perhaps this can all be compressed in futuristic scaffolding. None of this need interfere with the functions of the building, and might even suggest new functions.

A contemporary artist, then, or, we could even say, a contemporary ethical aestheticist, would be interested, first of all, in whatever his contemporaries desire to put at the center, to worship or to simply forget regarding the practices by which things are placed at centers. He would then be interested in revealing those practices of centering, and enhancing the hesitations and oscillations that defer the completion of the “installation” of that object (which could be a social or political narrative or fantasy) indefinitely. This involves, third, creating new practices in which versions of prospective centers are shown to be products of the imaginary input to them by the spectators (who become participants) of the work itself. There is already enough of a history of internet and internet-dependent art, along with critical and theoretical discussions of such art, to think in terms of deploying contemporary media for these purposes. Ultimately, art of all kinds would best be free of mediators like museums, galleries and publishers. Warhol’s dictum that “art is what you can get away with” would be realized in less trivializing (or smug) terms insofar as aesthetic practices would involve disguising yourself as who you are and infiltrating where you are so as to make more explicit the centralizing expectations of the “who” and the “where”—to turn your fellow participants in whatever discipline into “oscillators” between what you are doing and what you “should” or “might” be doing.

The approach I’m proposing displaces any intention to use art for sacralizing purposes—to restore old or create new sacred centers. Only an uncontested sacred center would make that possible. The real power of aesthetics today lies in the revelation of the mimetic contagions that are systematically disavowed in the most frenzied attempts at resacralization. For the foreseeable future, anyone not performing rage at this or that “tyranny” will be “undercover” in some sense, so the cover should be designed so as to introduce new patterns into the environment. Such aesthetic practices can be ennobling insofar as they demonstrate what might be done with what we have—while you’re busy putting these unworthy figures at the center, such art might say, here’s what the present level of your mediated mimetic practices would make possible. Here is where there might be a practice while you’re stuck in ritual and myth. Any move toward the center reminiscent of a direct appropriation of a shared sacrifice needs to be aborted by deflecting that move toward possible and provisional signs across the media and at all layers of the Stack—you can show how a particular demand for justice or remediation gets registered across bureaucracies and technologies and thereby becomes something completely different than what it purports to be. Such a practice is deritualizing and demythicizing and reminds us of the occupied center liberals are so desperate to forget, while at the same time reminding us of how our perceptions and attentions might change if all of the powers not exactly at our disposal were to be deployed coherently.

Every practice reveals a boundary—first of all between what are the means and expected effect of the practice and what are not—and so if we’re thinking in terms of practices we assume that all boundaries are the results of practices. Reality produces itself by constructing and revising boundaries distinguishing parts of itself, and we are parts of reality. In any thing you say or do you can locate a whole series of boundaries that you had to presuppose or hold constant in order to say or do that thing. The distinction between yourself and others presupposes a boundary, as does the distinction between yourself now and yourself a moment ago. You don’t construct these boundaries yourself—indeed, you play very little part in their construction. That you are the “same” person you are now a year ago, 5 years ago, 10 years ago and so one could be attributed to some immaterial entity projected onto the continuity of practices that keep you the same you—a “soul,” a “self,” a “personality,” a “character,” a set of “beliefs” or “principles,” and so on. All these are products of disciplines, from theology to psychology, and these and other disciplines are now data-driven and you can find proof of your “identity” in your credit-rating, your on-line presence and the mountain of data you generate just by being you. Here is where the boundaries between yourself and others, and between your various selves lie. We could conduct a similar discussion of boundaries between what is human and what is not human.

The point of aesthetico-ethical and aesthetic-moral practices is not to undo boundaries—which, like their construction, is mostly out of our control—but to help make them the materials and results of practices. Articulated boundaries are signs of a post-sacral, what we might call an “ex-orbital” (“other-worldly” in a new sense) center—a center that takes the most perfected practices as the means for organizing the rest of them. Distinguishing more from less perfected practices is the aesthetic-ethical and moral practice of government. The more perfected the practice, the more it presupposes and posits a center that provides for the perpetuation of other practices that could intersect with and supply the perfected one. We don’t need to project a “backstory” with an array of “qualities” to identify practitioners—we can let the romantic individual and his modernist successor wither on the vine. By our practices we shall know each other. The perfection of aesthetic practices is the shared inquiry into the constitution of boundaries between possible centers and possible congregants.

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