24 Mar 2017

Carsten Friberg's report from Wroclaw

Appearances of the Political, third meeting.

Wroclaw, 24-26 February, 2017 at the University of Wroclaw.

Carsten Friberg

The following are reflections based on the third meeting in the study circle. The circle also joined forces with three other circles in NSU, "Understanding Migration in Nordic and Baltic Countries", "International Relations and Human Rights" and "Comparative Futurologies" and with the help of four local PhD-students known as the Polish Power Team the circles created an ambiance for the seminar with similarities to the summer session.

The circle was formed by 21 participants from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Italy, Finland and Denmark. The theme was Aesthetics, Politics and Material Culture.

An idea behind the circle is that the political appears in many forms and in many contexts of which some are more obvious than others and many are overlooked, ignored or simply not considered political. The political is concerned with the organisation of the society – whether the scale is the ancient polis giving name to our discourses on the political or modern societies bound to the borders of national legislation and international agreements.

Not all political discourses lead to legislation and not all political appearances are concerned with legal institutions but to be reminded of the relation may seem of increasing importance in the current political situation where more debates show disrespect for and even attack on the legal system in the name of other values such as a will of the people (populism), personal freedom and unlimited growth in economic activities. Questions like what the will of the people is and how individual freedom relates to responsibility for a community and the environment become urgent.

Throughout Western philosophical tradition a fundamental problem has been the relation between the particular and the general, which is a problem concerning epistemology: how is this particular object subsumed under a general concept, but also a problem of social relations: how is this individual related to a larger public? A parallel between nature and politics can be drawn: We cannot make sense of phenomena in nature without talking of general laws, though the perceptions of what kind of law have changed over the millenniums. Nature without laws is a chaos of random phenomena giving no knowledge whatsoever. Likewise we cannot have a social life without laws regulating individual interests – where the law is absent anarchy, in its sense of conflict, rules.

Nature, related to Latin nasci, to be born, is concerned with growth from inherent principles. Throughout Western history nature was the guiding principle for knowledge and for organising human affairs. Today it has become battleground for ideas. An idea of limitless growth, such as in the current dominating economic model, can only be seen as unnatural from an old perspective, while for a modern perspective nature becomes a resource to transform into economic value. According to such logic nature is not a limit to our activities but a potential for development. Where limits are reached the shortage will stimulate invention and innovative solutions and limits are then creative stimulations for human enterprises.

Such a perspective has an implicit agenda: our common wealth is based on making use of resources and opposing the use can be seen as a threat to the common good. Corinna Casi asked, with the Barent's sea as example – an area becoming subject to an increased interest due to the potential value of its resources and new traffic routes made possible by climate changes opening up the North Pole – if the economic view of cost-benefit could be met with values that are not economic. With reference to the American philosopher Mark Sagoff she argued for the need to investigate and clarify non-economic values in the natural environment evaluated through historic, ethic and ecological aspects of the ecosystem.

For centuries the relation to nature has been that nature gives value to culture. Today it is human activities that give value to nature. Kant can appear as a turning point when he insists we can view nature as if it is created by intelligence but we cannot know it – on the other hand we cannot know different either. Art imitates nature has for centuries been essential but with Kant it becomes nature we are able to see as if it is like art. The Enlightenment, to which Kant belongs, is a period of changing interpretations and another idea becoming dominant is the expectation of quantifying for measuring – measuring also value. An example is Jeremy Bentham’s struggle with measuring improvements in society based on the principle, essential to utilitarianism, of seeking the greatest happiness for the greatest number, an idea found in 18th century discourses – one can think of Joseph Priestly and Cesare Beccaria. A way to measure this for Bentham is money. We invest our resources in expectation of an outcome we benefit from – and the beneficial outcome is to be happy.
Monetary economy seems to be on a constant expansion into more fields that can be subject to economic activities, like experiences (Pine & Gilmore) and attention (Georg Franck, Ökonomie der Aufmerksamkeit) and human existence in a broad sense (Gary S. Becker, human capital) while other approaches have raised questions about the complex forms of giving value to something and what exchange is (George Bataille, La part maudite, Pierre Klosowsky, La monnaie vivante, Jean Baudrillard, L’Échange impossible – to name a few).

The monetary system appears to be omnipresent in current Western societies. The exchange of goods which formed the foundation of economy has long been exceeded by an economy of expectations where the fictive future activities matter most and the money exchanged are created not to give us concrete means in our hands, coins and bills, but to become fictive numbers in the financial sector. Johanne Aarup Hansen presented a project from her collaboration with an ethnographer, Pernille Gøtz, about investigating how different people relate to different forms of money. Through mapping out the relational and material properties of four different forms of money intended for an exhibition context, awareness will be created to the role that money plays in society and consequently the political implications.

Coming back to nature it can also have a role in ideas of national identity. The natural environment has, at least since 16th century (Jean Bodin), been referred to for its influence on moral characters hence also political constitutions, an influence due to impact of climate – Jean-Jacques Rousseau could see Poland as the most northern to take into consideration (Du contrat social III, viii). The importance of landscape became far more distinct in the Romantic movement but is not less present in contemporary ideas of how a specific landscape is and how it relates to memories and narratives of its inhabitants. Mateusz Salwa gave an example of it with the film “Polska. Where unbelievable happens” from 2014, produced by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs showing scenes taking place in different landscapes showing traditional or hi-tech aspects of Poland.

The nature we would once orient towards and see forming people may today be subject to ideas forming it so it can help forming national identity. Taking the cultivation of most European landscapes into consideration one must ask what the national landscape really can be. What is considered natural is formed to reflect social, political and cultural issues and used – or rather created – in order to offer an (official) image of national identity. But what we think of as the ‘natural’ landscape will often turn out to be cultivated only some generations ago and full of invasive species.
Identity is essential to knowledge which is about relating something to something else giving it a position within a complex pattern of different elements and relations. There is nothing surprisingly about the question of identification also concerning other people. It is the choice of legitimacy for the identification that is interesting. Many people have a last name which indicates the family relation: son or daughter of someone. For most of us today it has now become a name without this significance. So what is hidden in this exchange of family with a national identity, which is also to identify with a larger political unit – a legislative unit?

We carry with us papers for identification. But what do they really identify? Giorgio Agamben (in Nudità) draws attention to a shift from identifying the person, referring to how persona originally meant a mask – Thomas Hobbes can say »that a person is the same that and actor is, both on the stage and in common conversation« (Leviathan xvi, 3). It defined the juridical person to later, in 19th century, become a photo and a print of the thump dipped in ink. The identification is then made by stripping off the history and social position from the person to reach the biological individual – Agamben calls it Identity without the Person; in what seems a prominent strategy of the modern world, to insist on the naked truth, or to say like Odo Marquard, to be obsessed with striptease (Lob der Polytheismus).

Our face, writes Peter Sloterdijk (Sphären I), has for most of our history not been for ourselves but for others. Until mirrors became common – and for most people we talk about 19th century – we would hardly know our own face apart from occasional reflections in water. But we would know other people’s reaction to our face. A culture of mirrors also turns our gaze inwards; our personal identity seems to change from playing our role in society to become an idea of who we really are before engaging with others.

Why has identity politics become so prominent on the agenda today? Does it answer the disappearance of old patterns of identification? Is it about understanding or about claiming or exercising powers? And why has one particular answer to identity become so important: The national origin.

‘Where are you from?’ is a question we ask each other with specific expectations. ‘I’m from Europe’ is not sufficient. ‘I’m from Copenhagen’ may do, then the other can conclude ‘ah, so you are from Denmark!’ Why is it we find this identification so important? And even ask for the birthplace someone is from. How many years does one have to live in one country before the original country is no longer the right answer? Imagine the coloured person in the north – when the answer is ‘I’m from Denmark’ the counter question may be ‘yes, but where are you really from?’ ‘I was born in Ghana, but came to Denmark when I was three’. Now relief is shown on the face of the other: ‘I see, you are from Africa!’

The ancient philosopher Diogenes – and while there are more ancient philosopher’s with the name Diogenes we need to identify which of them, and will often say Diogenes from Sinope – was famously known for insisting he did not belong to one particular polis, one particular city, but he was a world-citizen, a cosmopolite. Whether this was a positive ideal or to make a virtue of necessity – he was sent into exile – one can only guess. But in the light of the importance of national identities in current political debates there is need for more than guessing about their forms, origins and legitimacy. A project like ‘Dancing Finland’ that Noora-Helena Korpelainen presented appears at first as a very sympathetic project for Finland’s centenary celebration year with the theme “Together” meant to help in the fight against exclusion and isolation. However, she made aware of questions to ask whether such a project in principle differs in its appeal from other choreographies celebrating the totalitarian state or becoming subject to mindless populism. Is the material culture we are permanently involved in forming us beyond what we are aware of or can we improve, or at least train, a conscious embodiment which makes us aware of one’s own and others material existence as body-minds, as suggested by the philosopher Richard Shusterman?

This relation between the material environment and its influence on us along with the physical training of our bodies in education is also what my own presentation intended to draw attention to. What we today talk about as aesthetic objects have throughout Western tradition been central for sensorial and bodily education of social skills. This is found in discussions about taste where we demonstrate cultural belonging and social categories as the outcome of exercising specific sensorial and bodily practices in order to be receptive in a specific way. It forms a foundation for our practical lives in which we are confronted with our interpretation of the world present to us in the products and organisations we are involved with. An awareness of the educational aspect of the environment directs focus towards how they affect us and hence educate us.

An explicit contribution to education and specific to the creation of national identity and character is through monuments of war. The controversies over such monuments reveal changing narratives. Tomasz Ferenc presented an example from Hamburg of a monument from 1931 devoted to soldiers killed during the French-Prussian war and First World War, a monument expressing grief and loss. In conflict with ideas of a new spirit of the nation and military power of the Nazi party a new monument was made in 1936 by Richard Kuöhl to be in accordance with Nazi ideas, a monument that should have been destroyed after World War II but is instead now met with a counter-monument made by Alfred Hrdlicka devoted to civil victims of war instead of to the soldiers.

Like landscape and dancing raise questions of their implications monuments do as well. They shape and sustain social memories and become tools of inclusion and exclusion of historical events, groups and individuals. Monuments appear as discourses one should be aware of and engage in. Like Hrdlicka’s comment in Hamburg Aleksandra Makowska-Ferenc showed how monuments in London reflecting the history of British empire also have alternative narratives such as in Monument to the Woman of World War II and Animals in War. Both show what is otherwise ignored and perhaps intentionally removed from the discourse of war as it could be considered not only irrelevant but also dangerous to the chosen discourse – it is not reserved Nazi regimes to insist on a particular narrative. Monuments challenging the dominant narrative represent change in discourses but a question raised is to what extent. Is the discourse questioning the narrative as we know them – adding to them other perspectives now to be included? Do they question the premises for the discourses of war, such as glorification, patriarchal narrative of war and similar implications of the war monuments? How much attention do we pay to monuments? Often they become sights of attraction for tourists; are we then still affected by them? And paying attention to their message and to how they convey it?

When it comes to the direct communication in the political landscape we know from classical rhetoric how important the presence of the person is. How the ethos matters to the reception by the audience. Attention, as mentioned above seen by Georg Franck as becoming scarce and hence of value in our society, is crucial for the politician and, as Giedre Vaicekauskiene discussed, media play the central role in creating it as well as the ethos of the politician. The non-verbal side of communication becomes emphasised through media making the political person present to us in ways we never experience – we rarely, if ever, meet the national politicians in real life and if we do it will be in contexts where we will not come very close to them. Often media will be used to bring them close to us and to make them become present as human beings to create trust in them as persons.
We know this is a production of the politician, we know others are writing speeches and staging their presence and also that media itself initiates the production of politics to the extent where they change political strategies and act as required by the mass media. Politics, has, as Elisabetta Di Stefano could
say, become a stage show and has long abandoned what in classical culture would be considered the art of politics as long with the art of rhetoric.

Rhetoric has often a bad reputation of being about manipulating the audience with any means possible, but one should keep in mind the definition of rhetoric from Quintilian, vir bonus dicendi peritus, that it is the good man, i.e. the citizen who is capable as performing the duties as citizen, who is skilled in speaking, i.e. in saying what the situation requires to be said. To manipulate the audience is no art – already Plato made, in the dialogue Gorgias, aware of this when he complained about the Sophists not being able to transmit insight and knowledge to the audience but only to generate pleasure. Many political discourses turn out to be more about making people feel good than making them feel convinced that the politician will be able to do good.

Images are in more ways replacing the presence of people in an exchange without the symbolic value. Like the monument once having significance because it made something of importance present now becomes a trophy for the tourist to be include into the collection of selfies in front of famous places, also symbols in the political discourses can be deprived of any symbolic value to become only images creating fascination for the time being like commercial brands.

It is strikingly how these discourses may have similarities to discussions from the 60’s such as the images becoming empty pseudo-events manufactured for creating an event to report (Daniel Boorstin, The Image), the importance of the media as no neutral means of messages but itself forming it and worth the attention for what it does (Marshall McLuhan, The medium is the Message) and the play of images in the spectacle of a capitalist consumer culture (Guy Debord, La société du spectacle).

Italian cases were brought in, the blue and the words: forza Italia in football appropriated by the political movement of Silvio Berlusconi and Artur Gałkowski & Łukasz Jan Berezowski could add to this Beppe Grillo and the Five Stars Movement appearing as a movement to enter the vacuum created after the collapse of the traditional political parties. While the collapse was in the 90s there seems still not to be a full recovery which calls out the combination of addressing different widespread concerns among voters, which may be considered a form of populism, as well as taking the fool’s role to the extreme of no longer being the satirical voice saying what needs to be said but cannot be said by others to now become a voice within the political discourse. Will this form of political activism also evolve into a democratic and open-minded platform for governance or remain a populist voice in a chaotic political battlefield?

The role of the media is essential, to the extent of not being the messenger but the messages themselves, and Marciana Krauze & Mara Neikena presented research into the complexity of online information in the context of modern capitalist markets where social media such as Instagram create stories. A question may be what kind of stories, or simply if there really are stories. It seems to fit perfect with what Boorstin calls pseudo-events but question is then who is to judge the relevance and what is real and what is ‘pseudo’? The Danish translation of Boorstin has chosen synthetic, which may as well have negative connotations but could also suggest the element of production – the production of events and entertainment which attract, Franck again, attention and generates a monetary value. More agendas seem to be present. The exposure of privacy which can both be seen as a narcissist exposure, seeking confirmation of one’s self-image but also as an interest in sharing with others what may be believed to be of interest and what editors of the media platforms as well believe to be to the benefit of not only their profit but people’s belief about what is good.
Are pseudo- or synthetic news really news? Or fake news? A critical culture has based itself on the distinction between appearance and being and has little doubt: a critical apparatus must be activated to unmask hidden structures of powers. But the unmasking is itself a matter of power imposing a
particular world-view on others. To what extent is the political critique able to unmask its hidden agendas?

We have seen more times how an attempt to be oppositional and radical in critique such as carried out by more avant-garde arts turn out to be only affirmative to the society criticised, like when Michèle Bernstein for a Situationist exhibition with Victoire des Républicains Espagnols could comment on the monochrome art of Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni, thought to be immaterial art exposing an affective presence and offering a different reality, by pointing at such attempts to be a delusive escape of the society of spectacles which needs an opposition from within and not an escape to immaterial and imaginative alternatives. Such escapes will again turn out to camouflage the consumer culture and even be affirmative to its offer of buying happiness.
Does art in any way have a privilege as critical – a privilege to the use of Instagram? While some, like Richard Shusterman, will argue that popular culture may be responsible for profound changes in our society because it can reach out in ways impossible for avant-garde art – such as creating a genre like rock and roll as a fusion of rhythm and blues, country, jazz, blues, gospel as well as black and white, and urban and rural – others will say these changes never challenge fundamental structures. How many of the liberations of the 60s were real liberation from cultural patterns or just creation of new groups of consumers?

What is, for example, something like street artworks? Adam Andrzejewski discussed it pointing at how it transforms the space around particular artworks. A street artwork may be seen as intervention into places which does not leave the space untouched. Interventions are manifold, the billboard is one, tags another – the first one legal the second illegal claim of right to use the public space. While street artworks are commissioned and, most often, considered an improvement they are also in a perspective similar to the Situationist’s affirmative as they do not challenge the structures, only compensate for the worst flaws. Tags and graffiti wish to claim the public space for some of its users – taking part in a fight for the user’s rights to the public space.
The value of artistic interventions can be subject for more controversies. As Jozef Kovalčik pointed out the art education has a huge influence on what is perceived as art. While the art academies apparently have moved away from a self-perception as safeguarding a high culture heritage to now also including elements of popular culture he questioned whether they really have become more inclusive and open or are still producing and reproducing high culture. The evaluative criteria within the institutions may still be in accordance with categories of the high culture insensitive to everyday life which is considered not to be intellectual or sophisticated enough. Perhaps it turns out that some liberals and leftists hold a perspective similar to a conservative like Roger Scruton, who has fiercely criticised popular culture for being empty, superficial noise in lack of artistic values, i.e. of transforming the spiritual content of the Western culture.
Artistic interventions into public spaces may often go wrong, communicating only to fellow critique and not to the public it intended to address. How to make art communicate, when communication is intended? To make Conversation Pieces as the title is of Grant Kester’s book on what he calls dialogical aesthetics? Not only may the intervention fail and the dialogue fall apart – if it was even established in the first place; aesthetics may also contribute to a cultural segregation by forming and enhancing certain standards demonstrated in the expression of taste and also to appropriate the artistic critique by reducing it to something that can be placed in institutional frames as object of aesthetic appreciation.

Perhaps such challenges are present in the considerations for a project in the suburb of Kontula located in east Helsinki that Raine Vasquez participate in and presented. An area regarded as a low
income working class area with a high level of unemployment and social conflicts today being transformed due to demographic changes. Not considered a place for cultural activities the project will give voice to the culture that nevertheless is present through a House of Culture set up by the museum of Impossible Forms. The question of balancing between high art and popular culture seem to underlie this project regarding engaging sincerely, ethically, and from within meaningfully. Giving voice to the present culture by offering space and expertise is no neutral approach despite intentions of not importing culture and to co-generate it with the community, which in return may ask for help to improve and change their own practices in accordance with what they believe they should do.
Anything we do is an intervention and a matter of participating in power structures – structures going behind our bag or structures we actively engage in. Those behind our bag call for different radical strategies – like the Situationists mentioned – and seem often doomed to lead to a form of political depression, as Max Ryynänen shared from his own works. Doomed to, or perhaps a better expression is cursed by, a curse, to follow Peter Sloterdijk, coming from being so occupied with opposing and performing resistance to power that the radical critique loses its oppositional power and even legitimacy when it ends in celebration of the critical position rather than having a political impact. Perhaps some philosophical patterns are recognised here. One of the few – perhaps even the only – philosophers recognised by all philosophical traditions is Kant. If we ignore he is not celebrated in the same way by all they will still agree that his merit is questioning the dogmatic character of his predecessors. Not many philosophers after Kant succeed in avoiding falling back into dogmatism, and those who do not are haunted by depressions similar to the political. Whenever we question something we are using a language already containing the possible answers to the questions. We may believe God is dead, but we will not get rid of him as long as we believe in the grammar is what Nietzsche fears in Die »Vernunft« in der Philosophie. We maintain a hierarchy in how we interpret anything because the langue gives us no alternative. And in practice we maintain a divine position in our organisation, like Agamben can draw attention to in Che cos’è in dispositivo? linking economy to theological discourses on how to explain the impossible of Christian theology that God is both one and three. The son is entrusted with the governance of the father’s house, the economy, but in that model he also becomes the governor of something removed from the being of the father – and when the father dies the economy can no longer find any foundation in being but is still present as a governance we are all subject to. The omnipresence of economy as ruling principle in modern society may be the substitution of the ontology abandoned with the critical philosophy of Kant and the disappearing of foundation with God’s withdrawal. Perhaps society becomes ontology, but society is nothing static and given – it is us.

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