Thursday, May 15, 2008

What isn't real?

Ceci n'est pas un toad.

Today I entered the bathroom at work at the same time as another man I'd never met. He placed his briefcase on one of the sinks and we both went our ways. When I returned to wash my hands his briefcase was still blocking the sink – the one with the soap dispenser and the decent water pressure. So I went to the other sink. He quickly realized his faux pas and went to retrieve his briefcase, saying, "here, this sink has real water." He seemed to recognize how odd his word choice sounded, so he added with some apparent irony, "as opposed to fake water…virtual water."

I smiled politely but didn't say anything. I was thinking about this blog post I started writing months ago but never finished:

What is real?

My habit in constructing meanings of words, for good or ill, is generally to consider etymologies. So for me "real" is above all an adjective form of the Latin "res," which simply means "thing." So the real is the world of things. But that's too vague or too fundamental to get us very far.

The essence of reality is such an enduring enigma that it feels like a cliché even to raise the question. Perhaps a back door might be more interesting: What isn't real?

What often strikes me most in discussions of the real is the array of terms people seem to implicitly accept as antonyms for the real:

  • artificial. This should properly be an antonym for "natural." The artificial is the product of artifice, of art-making, or more fundamentally, of skill-doing. So anything made or done by means of skill is artificial.
  • synthetic. Closely related to 'artificial' in common parlance. Etymologically, however, synthesis means combining, putting things in the same place. The synthetic is that which emerges from combinations of (presumably) non-synthetic elements. If you ever encounter something non-synthetic, please let me know. But don't tell those geeks at the particle physics research lab; you'll ruin their day.
  • virtual. This comes to us by way of optics. A virtual image is one which, reflected or projected by a mirror or lens, appears somewhere other than the focus. It cannot be captured by placing a reflective surface at the point where it appears to be, because it's not really there. In digital media the word is used analogically to refer to something that exists only in a flow of digital bits and has no direct meatspace correlate.
  • imaginary. The imaginary has a status comparable to that of the digital-virtual, except that the flow of electrons is in our brains rather than in a digital network. However the etymology suggests that mental life consists of images – a notion which I join WJT Mitchell in questioning (see "What is an Image?", Iconology). Of course one can hardly discuss the imaginary without reference to Jacques Lacan's theory of registers: the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. But note that the Real is nothing like the real and has more in common with what common parlance labels imaginary and symbolic.
  • representational. The problem with separating the real from the representational is, of course, that we only have access to the real by way of our intrinsically representational senses. And we only process these sense-data by way of previously structured symbolic systems, which are intrinsically social. So it is impossible to recognize something utterly new on its own terms.
  • mediated. Despite the claims of "immediacy" made by cheerleaders of the digital revolution, we are as mediated as ever. It's just a little quicker. Speed and scale are not to be underestimated – as Mark Poster notes, "quantity 'dialectically' transmutes into quality" ("Words Without Things", The Mode of Information). But they give no short circuit to unmediated experience. Today people write more than ever because the extreme reductionist information parsimony of text allows it to be produced and sent around the globe in seconds. But that parsimony is an extraordinary communicative trade-off (mediation), regardless of the innovation of emoticons. The more we love speed (one sense of 'immediacy'), the more mediated we render ourselves.
  • intentional. In the emotionalist ideology, the first, raw, unfiltered response one gives to any situation is the real one, and anything later, more considered, is secondary, mediated (see above). This notion seems to deprivilege what in Freudian terms would be called the superego – the repressive filter that keeps the id and the ego down below the surface in order to accommodate getting along with others. (A closely related word is "tendentious"). I've read interviews with David Lynch where he seemed to disclaim any planning or intentionality in his films – his astonishing intricacies of plot and symbolic entanglements, he would have us believe, emerge organically, as if he had opened a vein on his psyche.
  • ironic. The ironic is like the intentional in its purported secondarity. Irony is a distantiating stance, a standing apart from oneself (an ecstasy), seeing oneself as other and commenting on oneself. Philosophers and comedians, according to Paul de Man, bear the cursed gift of irony ("The Rhetoric of Temporality"). The trouble with distinguishing the ironic from the real is that it presupposes one can make any utterance without at the same time observing it and therefore redirecting it by the power of the gaze.
  • electronic. See virtual (sense 2).
  • academic. I've been told by classmates that I have "a real job." This is in apparent contradistinction to their jobs as teaching assistants, despite the fact that they're doing the real work of teaching introductory courses to undergraduates, which frees up senior faculty to focus their time and energy on the more stimulating and collegial work of advanced classes. The academic is that which is purportedly meaningful only within the halls of higher learning – an enclave thought to stand apart from "the real world." I mistrust that term since it simultaneously endorses the supposed unreality of academia and the supposed reality of … what -- commerce? capital? Both fundamentally symbolic systems. They disappear, or at least go into crisis, the moment people stop believing in them. And let's not forget that a university is a business. Since I work for a university, apparently my real job is not in the real world. I'm like Marianne Moore's real toad in an imaginary garden. The real/academic distinction recalls Jean Baudrillard's notion of Disneyland – the only real place on earth, which we project as a fantasy in order to distract us from the fantasies on which our "real" social systems depend. We call "the real world" real (and even boast of our efforts to introject "real-world experience" into our teaching) in order to convince ourselves that a) the world outside of academia provides an unmediated anchor in substance, however externalized, and b) we remain unsullied by this too, too solid flesh.
  • theoretical. Theory is made up of words and pictures, both of which entail physical phenomena. Theory is typically oriented toward producing real effects. Every day millions of cars pass safely over bridges that, in Peter Gabriel's words, "were once just a dream in somebody's head" ("Mercy Street", So). Some people even earn a comfortable living producing nothing but theory. Theory, in short, is a practice.

Other examples I could cite would likely be functionally derivative of these concepts. For example, in my family of origin, once my sisters were old enough to despise their bodies, our milk consumption was bifurcated into skim milk and "real milk". (Later these became, respectively "girl milk" and "boy milk", but that's a whole 'nother blog post.) This distinction referred to the supposed artificiality of skim milk, despite the fact that "real milk" is produced by cows that are artificially controlled, fed, medicated, selected for reproduction, inseminated, maintained in perpetual lactation, milked, killed, butchered, and cannibalized, and whose product is homogenized, pasteurized, fortified, sealed in plastic, distributed, advertised, exchanged, symbolized, and ultimately consumed and metabolized in a curious inter-species relationship of exploitive nurturance. The additional artifice of skimming off some of the fat and applying it to other products hardly seems worth a mention in that context.

An in-class exercise in my Production Workshop class asked us to define "fact." I was struck by how many of the definitions used the word "actual." The actual is the world of acts; it is the verb to the noun of the real. My question was: is a thought an act? If so, then what isn't actual?

From the list above I can't think of a single item that isn't real, that isn't imbricated in the world of things. Artifice and synthesis entail the acts of real persons on real things. (Can unreal entities be composed of real entities?) All the rest of these phenomena entail, at least, flows of electrons, photons, neurotransmitters, pulses of differential air pressure – the stuff our world is made on.

Got more antonyms? Please post a reply. It gets lonely in this virtual prison of the real.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Is it art or vandalism? Love or rape?

Exhibit A is an approximately white canvas, one panel of a triptych, which many would consider artless, even if they were willing to concede its value as conceptual art.

Exhibit B, the "after" shot, shows the same painting with a large lipstick smudge painted by artist Rindy Sam. Her modification is arguably artful; I don't know enough about painting to judge it on formal or technical grounds, but certainly one could admit her gesture of audacious intervention in a heterotopic space is consistent with the field of 20th century conceptual art.

She called this an act of love, and said she thought the artist would've understood. Perhaps she was thinking of Marcel Duchamp, who is reputed to have claimed that his painting on glass "The Bride Stripped Bare..." was improved when it was cracked as a result of being accidentally dropped in transit to an exhibition. Or of Man Ray, who, when someone took him up on the challenge implied in the title of his sculpture "Object to be Destroyed," cheerfully made another.

As far as I've been able to learn, Twombly has made no comment on this case. Sam is being punished/published by the French government (who proposes to rehabilitate her into a model citizen by means of civility classes) and sued by the owner for more than the estimated value of the painting.

I imagine, though, that that value is now a moving target. She has probably increased it significantly by drawing international attention. I certainly hadn't heard of it before yesterday, or I would have cited it in my master's thesis -- the title of the triptych, "Phaedrus" references Plato's dialogue in which Socrates decries writing as a secondary, empty form of communication that can never simulate the presence of speech. (Really, wasn't Twombly inviting this response, at least on the level of fantasy?)

I think the owner should play this up as much as he can for the next few weeks, and then sell the painting, drop the law suit, and split the profits with Sam. (Maybe that's what they'd planned all along?) And if he's so enamored of the unmodified painting, he can commission Twombly to paint him another. Should take all of 5 minutes, so how expensive can it be?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Found sound hound bounds around town; rewound ground mounds resound & astound.

There's something beautifully obsessive about HarSmedia's Found Tapes exhibit. Seeking (or happening upon) discarded bits of weathered tape lying in streets, cleaning them up, spooling them, and playing them back to hear the sound of gems dropped casually to the concrete. Tracking, describing, photographing and Google-mapping the exact locations of the discoveries.

The resulting montage is a delightful listen -- more diverse than any radio station you could dream of (containing music from all over the world, and all up and down the scale from professionally recorded performances to answering machine messages), and somehow the lo-fi quality and jarring edits only add to the fascination.

Like sweet sugar bombs for my ADHD aesthetic sensibilities.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

New primary color discovered
Actually, this must have been discovered some time ago since the tech support page makes reference to Apple System 8.1. Anyway, once they get over the rather daunting infrastructural hurdles, this should have enormous implications for cultural production into the future.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Does matter matter?

In my Texts and Textuality class last week we attempted the exercise of spelling out a minimalist definition of text. One of the more interesting questions that came out of this discussion is whether text implies a material instantiation or record. Our guest faculty member, Dr. Richard Priebe, insisted that it requires a record – that text is something to be returned to again, by oneself or another. I appreciate his point, but I don't think the latter proposition requires the former. (I should note here that one of his primary research interests is in folklore and oral traditions, so none of the arguments I'm about to make will be new to him.)

Traditions are texts. Performances are texts. Anything that can be approximately reproduced in the memory of a reader (in the broad sense) can be interpreted, modified, reproduced, re-presented, recontextualized, etc., and therefore constitutes a text as I understand the term.

Take for example a wedding ceremony. Certainly it can be based on a written script, and deviations can occur either by explicit consensus of the participants, or by improvisation, memory lapses, etc. And certain elements may be strictly required by interests of the church, state, or family tradition. But out of the entire social spectacle, how much of it is based on a written script? The words may be, and the music may be, but the attire is not. The arrangement of witnesses around the focal couple is not, nor is their arrangement in front of the officiator. The vocal intonations and sweeping hand gestures of the officiator are a matter of performance tradition, theater, rhetoric, and oral homiletics and/or judicial gravitas. These elements are handed down by a tradition of in-person witness and, more recently, of Hollywood representations. And yet they are reproduced with striking consistency within a given cultural milieu.

Matter is crucial in such traditions in the form of the architectural setting, the decor, the attire, and most especially the performing bodies. But this congregation of matter is a momentary conduit for the text that passes through it, not in any way a storage medium. Even without the near-universal photography and videotaping that goes on at weddings (by the way I realize now that my wife and I after 7 years to the day have yet to watch our wedding video), people would reproduce weddings with striking consistency. The text is not in the tape; it is in the performance. It can be parsed, praised, and parodied without any recourse to a script or record. (Here's a good guideline: if it can be parodied, it's a text!)

This weekend I saw a strange spectacle during the US Open tennis tournament. Top contender Novak Djokovic, still winded after winning a semi-final match, was prompted by a TV interviewer to perform impersonations of other players. He did so, taking specific requests for his subjects. So it seems tennis playing style is a text but, more profoundly, our personal being-in-the-world, comprising thousands of half-conscious and frequently repeated gestures, is a text that can be recognized even when performed by another. By the way, I would link you to specific YouTube footage of the performances in question, but when I looked for them I found two additional performances of the same two parodies, also caught on video. It seems this was no spontaneous performance.

During our class discussion Dr. Cornis-Pope threw out the hypothetical of an aggregation of debris on the beach. Is it a text? I'd say if someone wanders along and sees in it a contour that prompts her to envision the face of the Virgin Mary or some other signifier that registers with her then yes, it's a text. It becomes a text by her regarding it as such. She might even study it as an ephemeral abstract composition that she was fortunate to find before the rising tide gathered it up for its ongoing recombinant composition of found beach art. Now this text is made of matter, ephemeral though it is. The question in this case is not one of matter but of intention. Does designation of phenomena as text presume intentional composition?

Say the woman on the beach is a marine biologist examining the debris pile for microorganisms. Or a police detective looking for evidence of a missing person last seen sleeping on this beach. Does professional status confer textual properties on unintended aggregates?

If we follow Barthes' treatment of text, the crucial intention is not that of the text's author but that of the reader; or rather, the reader is the author of the text. The text may be transitory and unintended but remains a text in the memory of the reader. Perhaps memory constitutes a record and therefore could satisfy Dr. Priebe's requirement. Memory is notoriously transient and mutable, but it is certainly physical on the level of electrochemically charged neurons. Memory is the matrix in which forms are abstracted, connections made, patterns recognized, hypotheses tested, so perhaps in a nontrivial way Dr. Priebe and I are both right.

My minimal definition of text echoes the structuralist definition of the basis of language itself: a play of differences.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

From work to play?

Commanding the field of the evening's readings on this, the first class meeting of my new doctoral program, was Roland Barthes' essay "From Work to Text." I've studied it many times before, but it's useful to reread (as if for the first time) and reconsider such a foundational text in poststructuralist thought.

In class discussion we touched on the terminological problem at the core of this essay -- one which Barthes himself acknowledges, though it is surely complicated by the translation from French: it is not possible to maintain a rigorous distinction between works and texts.

On the one hand I feel he is too eager to dismiss the word "work": I find nothing in its etymology or common usage that dictates its ascription to a static, monistic materiality. If you think of "work" from a process-oriented perspective, ditching the definite and indefinite articles and regarding it as ongoing work (as Heidegger might have said), then it comes to operate very much as text.

On the other hand I feel he is too eager to embrace the rich metaphors that drive "text." He wards off accusations of a trendy adoption of the word, but I think the problem is more crucial than that: unlike work, text, thought of in terms of those metaphors (texture, textile) suggests an inert, material thing. (In English the most common usage of "material" is in reference to textiles.) This is a rather limiting frame-work to in which to place something as dynamic as the evanescent play of differences he describes as his primary interest in this essay.

It feels obscene to throw out "work," facilely dismissed as closed, static, and monistic (i.e. a god-form), and simply replace it with another word that after all is only a noun, and one bearing a distinctly material constellation of meanings. How is this moving us closer to dynamism, process, and play?

Some commentators in the past have tried to get around this limitation by verbing "text" as "texting." I understand and appreciate the motives for this gesture, but I'm not sure it's a necessary neologism. A better alternative is already available to us: play.

Barthes uses it himself throughout this essay, as did Jacques Derrida in his groundbreaking essay "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." Play is the term poststructuralist critics resort to when they have to explain how text works. Play cannot be thought outside of a process-oriented perspective. So why not let play play? Why make it the understudy to text?

Perhaps it is simply a problem of language translation. Certainly in English it would cause headaches if we all started referring to all manner of text as "play." Dramatis personae would stage a revolt, just as scientists have objected to the co-optation of "theory." But then "text" causes its own headaches -- say "text" to academics who have not been inculcated into poststructuralist discourse and they'll picture a dull, expensive, hardcover book filled with lots of "facts."

Under the benefits column, "play" offers a handy and ready-made antonym to "work" and nicely suggests the ludic ethos of poststructuralist critique.

Of course, this is all moot -- text is here to stay. But in these postings you may find me playing more than texting.

I just crossed a huge threshold.

I went to edit my inaugural blog. With fingers poised over the keys on the edit page, I stopped myself. I even let a glaring spelling mistake ride. This is huge for me.

My resolution for this blog is to eschew editing. Some people can edit in moderation, but I have an editing problem. So I must abstain completely.

Abstinence will make this blog even more painful, but I hope that by acclimating myself to the discomfort I will emerge a less twitchy person.