Cyborgs and Zombies in the Classroom

There’s a discussion going on in the Wired Campus blog on the question of how, to what extent, and with what effects students’ cognitive abilities are being altered by new technologies.  The discussion was triggered by an article in The Sunday Times of London, “Report: The Next Step in Brain Evolution” by Richard Woods.

The basic argument is familiar.  Given the pervasive use of mobile phones, instant text messaging, email, and blogs for communication, young people today are encountering so much information so rapidly that multi-tasking and on-the-fly assessment has become the norm accompanied by reduced attention spans and diminished ability to concentrate and reflect on ideas, engage in an extended conversation or discussion, analyze and critically interpret an argument or text, etc., etc. 

When this phenomenon is present in the classroom, the instructor is faced with a dilemma:  Do I do what I’ve always done and try to discipline them to listen to a lecture, take notes, and follow-up with questions and critical comments?  Or do I completely rethink my approach by incorporating more discussion, multimedia presentations, online resources, and group collaborations?

Setting aside for the moment the question of whether this so-called dilemma accurately represents the situation, it’s worth noting the most provocative aspect of Woods’ article — the claim by cognitive scientist Andy Clark that today’s students (and everyone else immersed in digital technology) should be considered “cyborgs” given their radically altered cognitive behavior and emerging skills.  Due to the interfaces and tools we use today, thinking is being increasingly externalized — taking place “outside the head” — to such an extent that “[i]t will soon be harder than ever to tell where the human user stops and the rest of the world begins”. (Edge’s Third Culture profile and article by Clark are here, and interview from 2004 at the Institute for the Future here, and the Wikipedia entry here.)

The notion that thoughts and mental content are not entirely “in the head” is not new to contemporary philosophers of mind (e.g. Fred Dretske, to take just one recent example).  Debates between internalists and externalists have given rise to a vast literature on the topic.  To what extent this is relevant to how students acquire and make use of information is not obvious to me.  But surely we’ve reached the point where our reflections on the matter and our pedagogical responses can and should go beyond the anecdotal by taking advantage of current empirical evidence.

Actually, I’m probably less concerned about cyborgs than I am about zombies in the classroom.

Atta Kim — Approaching a Universal?

This afternoon we saw, Atta Kim: On Air, an exhibition of large format photographs by the Korean artist Atta Kim at the International Center of Photography.  Most of the work in this small show is visually interesting and conceptually clever.  The most remarkable and noteworthy images, however, are the composite photos of faces: Self-Portrait Series, 100 Tibetan Men, 2005; Self-Portrait Series, 100 Tibetan Women, 2005; and Self-Portrait Series, 100 Countries/100 Men, 2004.  For each of the images, Kim photographed 100 visually distinct individuals and layered the images to form a composite “portrait”.  The results are not necessarily what you’d expect.

Atta Kim, ON-AIR Project, Self-Portrait Series, 100 Countries/100 Men, 2004

The final image is, I assume, the mean of the individual images.  The differences at the edges in the size and shape of the ears, the size of the head, the configuration of the hair, etc. are rendered out-of-focus.  The regions in sharpest focus are around the eyes, nose, cheeks, and mouth.

I was struck by the fact that elements one would typically refer to as flaws — a crooked nose, scars, skin blemishes, asymmetries, etc. — are cancelled out in the composite.  The result a kind of perfect and symmetric beauty — a straight and gently rounded nose, wide round eyes, full lips, and a smooth round face overall.

The individual images from which the composites were formed are exhibited with the final work.  It’s worth considering the source for each.  You may be inclined to think that 100 images of Tibetan men and women would, given the biological and regional parameters, reveal general similarities.  And, to some extent, they do.

But the 100 men from 100 different countries are about as diverse a set as you would find if each individual was chosen randomly.  (One qualification: Judging from the source photos, I would guess the age of the subjects ranged from around 24 to 60.)  Head size and shape, skin color, amount and configuration of hair, shape of noses, chins, eyes, etc. vary considerably from one person to the next.

If Kim has not intervened to smooth out or in any way alter the composite, the result is not what I would have predicted.  This is not a monster.  Far from it.  The composite figure strikes me as serene, appealing, and beautiful.  (This is true of all three figures, by the way.)  Why is that the case?

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Holland Cotter’s review of the exhibition is in the 12 July 2006 New York Times.

Justice in Hobbes’ Leviathan

Michael Green points to an apparent inconsistency in Hobbes’ Leviathan concerning justice in the state of nature:

Hobbes claims three things that are difficult to reconcile. (All references are to chapter and paragraph in Leviathan unless otherwise noted).

1.    There is no such thing as justice or injustice in the state of nature.

"To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice." (13.13; see also 15.3)

2.    Injustice is, by definition, breaking a valid covenant.

"the definition of INJUSTICE, is no other than the not performance of covenant. And whatsoever is not unjust, is just." (15.1-2)

3.    There are valid, obligatory covenants in the state of nature (textual evidence below). [14.27; 15.4.5]

(1) and (2) together entail that there are no valid covenants in the state of nature (Hobbes says so himself: 15.3). That contradicts (3).

But (2) and (3) together entail that there is such a thing as justice and injustice in the state of nature. That contradicts (1).

What are we to make of this apparent contradiction?  Green tries to resolve it through a process of impressive and subtle interpretation.  I’m inclined to agree with Philip Kain (see below) that Hobbes was caught between competing interests that do not allow an easy way out of the dilemma.  Let me see if I can make this clear.

Kain [Marx and Modern Political Theory, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993] claims Hobbes’ problem is, in part, due to his project of providing a scientific deduction of the necessity of the social contract and the absolute sovereign.  So, again, we need to consider what follows from the existence of justice in the SN.

A.  If justice exists in the SN, there may be alternatives to an absolute sovereign and Hobbes’ argument for the necessity of the social contract fails.

If just agreements exist in the state of nature, it might be irrational for people to consent to an absolute sovereign.  Why couldn’t they settle for a limited government that would act as arbitrator in disputes, or create a government that was capable of bringing about consensus among the people, a la Rousseau?  This, at least, seems to be an option.  And if it is, it’s possible but not necessary for them to relinquish all their rights to an absolute sovereign.

B.  If justice does not exist in the SN, nothing legitimates the original covenant and Hobbes’ argument for the necessity of the social contract fails.

Without just agreements in the state of nature, nothing legitimates covenants (as stated in the Third Law of Nature) and, a fortiori, the original contract establishing the absolute sovereign.  [Note, Hobbes’ claims at 13.13 and 15.3 that there is no justice outside a Commonwealth.]

So, with or without justice in the state of nature, the argument for the social contract fails.

Hobbes may have had another reason for claiming that there is a basis for just covenants in the state of nature.  So let’s try another tack.

If there are no just agreements in the state of nature but only in a commonwealth, then the sovereign must make right and wrong by means of arbitrary judgments.  Hobbes seems committed to this when he says there is no justice outside a commonwealth.  But without just agreements in the state of nature, there seems no way to argue from fact to value — from "is" to "ought".  What do I mean by that?

Imagine an ideal situation in which everyone who makes a promise keeps it.  It doesn’t follow from the fact that people keep their promises that they ought to keep their promises.  There’s another step missing that would connect what one does with what one is obliged to do.  So how does one get from the empirical fact of what people actually do to the obligation, i.e. that they are somehow obliged to keep their promises?  There seems to be none in Hobbes’ state of nature.  (That’s part of the reason it seems so odd to claim, as Hobbes does, that if a robber says "your money or your life" and doesn’t kill me, I’m obligated to turn over my money.)  Thus, there would seem to be no basis in the state of nature for claiming that keeping covenants is just and obligatory rather than simply prudential.

But why is justice important for Hobbes?  Why isn’t fear a sufficient basis for maintaining public order in the commonwealth?  It may be.  There is, of course, a long tradition of those who claim that might makes right.  But that doesn’t make it legitimate.  If you are going to argue for a political order based on a just agreement, as Hobbes attempts to do, you must have a way of accounting for justice and obligation.  It has to come from somewhere.  Either it’s

1.    an intrinsic feature of the world,
2.    given by God, or
3.    established by convention.

This is where things get difficult and messy.  Since Hobbes is a strict empiricist, it may be hard to see how he can claim God is responsible for the laws of nature.  But he does just that.  At the end of his discussion of the laws of nature, he makes the following statement:

These dictates of reason men used to call by the name of laws, but improperly: for they are but conclusions or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves; whereas law, properly, is the word of him that by right hath command over others. But yet if we consider the same theorems as delivered in the word of God that by right commandeth all things, then are they properly called laws. (15.41)

Hobbes also claims that laws of nature are discovered by reason and are related to the fundamental law to seek peace.  Justice seems, however, to be a very precise notion in Hobbes’ scheme of things.  An unjust act is defined as the breaking of a covenant.  If an act is not unjust, he claims it is just.  (This is a strange definition, but I’ll set that aside for the purposes of this discussion.)  And the command to fulfill contractual obligations is the third law of nature.  So again we confront the existence of justice in the state of nature and the question, "Why is it there?"

Part of the reason, picking up the thread of Kain’s argument, must be to get from fact to value — from "is" to "ought".  It’s a fact that commonwealths (or states) are most often the result of wars and hostile takeovers.  What justifies the rule of the conqueror in such situations?  Under what conditions would the conquered be obligated to obey the sovereign?  Hobbes has a facile answer.  War and the collapse of the commonwealth is a return to the state of nature.  If in that state of nature the conqueror does not kill us, we are obligated to fulfill his demands.  That’s the basis for the covenant which Hobbes claims is just (without argument, as far as I can see). 

He also claims that sovereignty by acquisition (conquering a people; 17.13 & 18.1) is equivalent to sovereignty by institution (20.1-3; 10-11).  Just agreements in the state of nature are required to justify the former (recall the claim about robbery at 14.27).  As Kain observes, without that justification derived in a purely theoretical (scientific and deductive) manner, Hobbes would have no basis for linking theory ("ought") with fact ("is"), claiming that the two forms of sovereignty are equivalent, and that both are legitimate.  The problem, as suggested above, is that the existence of just agreements in the state of nature undermines Hobbes’ argument for sovereignty by institution.

Thus, in his admirable attempt to move beyond the merely utopian exercise of deriving the necessity of the social contract in the state of nature and demonstrating how the abstract, scientific derivation which justifies absolute sovereignty can also legitimize historical reality — that historical fact is logically supported and justified — Hobbes is led to the contradiction discussed above.

Documentary or Non-Fiction Film: Thoughts on Truth and Visual Images

In a recent lecture at Harvard University, Errol Morris was introduced by Homi Bhabha as a non-fiction filmmaker.  Morris opened his lecture with the following remarks:

I should point out that the use of the term “nonfiction feature”…was really a marketing tool. Probably the same could be said for Truman Capote’s “non-fiction novel,” as well — the desire to get your work before a larger audience, which is at least part of the motivation for making movies…. I picked this subject because ever since I started work as a filmmaker and probably long before, I was concerned, still am concerned, with issues of truth and self-deception. I’ve never liked the idea expressed by Godard that film is truth 24 times a second. I have a slightly different version. Film is lies 24 times a second. Almost the same, slightly different.

The first film I made, Gates of Heaven, was very much in reaction to a prevailing idea about how documentaries should be made. Namely, the idea of cinema verité, truth cinema. There was this idea that if you follow certain rules, if you shoot things in a certain way, then out pops the truth. The rules, themselves, are fairly straightforward. Shoot with a hand-held camera. Shoot with available light, become a fly-on-the-wall, observing but not observed in turn. And of course, try to be as unobtrusive as possible. It’s one of those meat-grinder ideas. You put in the appropriate ingredients, and magically, truth results.

To me, it’s utter nonsense. Who could have ever made such a claim? On the basis of what? Does the font you use to print a sentence guarantee its truth or falsity? I think not…. [S]tyle doesn’t guarantee truth. How could it possibly ever do such a thing?

This argument strikes me as somewhat disingenuous.  The main point, that style is no guarantee of truth, is accurate, trivial, and probably uncontroversial.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine that anyone including the most ardent defenders of cinema verité would object to it.

An obvious response to Morris’ claim would be that certain techniques, formats, procedures, etc. used by filmmakers are more likely than others to break through the symbolic structure of lies and reveal the truth.  This is precisely the argument the defender of cinema verité might use to demonstrate why the recent film on the emergence of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, is less significant as a non-fiction film than D.A. Pennebaker’s classic Don’t Look Back.

The recent “Scorsese” film has at its core the “first-hand” testimony of the subject, Bob Dylan, conveyed through an interview conducted by his manager (and co-producer of the film), Jeff Rosen, whose role as interviewer is cut from the screen not simply to focus the viewer’s attention exclusively on the artist, but because it’s irrelevant.  The only questions asked are those Dylan wants to answer.  The result is an autobiographical account of Bob Zimmerman’s early years supplemented with nearly three hours of clips from his childhood up to his emergence in the ’60s as the folk phenomenon and spokesman for a generation, i.e. “Bob Dylan”.  The careful editing contributes to a coherent and unified picture of the artist as an innocent young musician and songwriter caught up against his will in a world of unrealistic expectations and fantasies forced on him by devoted fans and the media.

And while it’s a fact that “Dylan” was constructed as a prophet of the counter-cultural youth movement of the ’60s, both consciously and by external forces that no one could control, this in itself does not tell “the whole story”.  No Direction Home is merely an “authorized version” of Dylan’s early life, and nothing more.

Isn’t D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary from the mid-’60s, Don’t Look Back, by contrast, the antithesis of the official version?  Not only does it focus on a very limited and precise moment — a three-week concert tour of England in March 1965 — but it unobtrusively, in orthodox cinema verité fashion, records the artist as he writes, talks, drinks, hangs out with friends and acquaintances, and performs on stage, documenting without comment Dylan’s day-to-day activities.  Perhaps even more important for constructing this kind of “truth-effect” is the long take — the way the camera lingers for extended periods of time and in such an inconspicuous way on a particular scene or encounter, that it wears down all pretence and posing, goes beyond the possibility of the subject simply playing to the camera.  It’s at this stage that the viewer seems to become a proverbial fly-on-the-wall, gaining access to a range of behavior and a fuller sense of the real complexity of the character and the situation in which he finds himself.

There are two scenes that illustrate my point.  The first one comes from Pennebaker’s film.  Dylan is on tour in England accompanied by friends Bob Neuwirth, Alan Price of the Animals, his manager Albert Grossman, and others.  In this segment, Dylan is in the dressing room in Newcastle waiting to go onstage.  The soundcheck has been done and there’s nothing left to do but wait nervously for the call.  This scene opens with a shot of a young, earnest and painfully sincere science student who writes music criticism for a local newspaper.  What we witness is the way nervous energy gets chaneled by Dylan into a merciless put-on or sending-up of the defenseless interviewer. Dylan controls the discourse by turning around the impossible questions he’s typically asked by reporters and directing them to the science student (who, by the way, went on to become the president of Chrysalis records.)

Now there’s something very interesting here.  Near the end of the scene when the science student is finally allowed to ask his first question and falters, there’s a knock at the door.  Bob Newirth answers and tells Dylan that the High Sheriff’s Lady is here and would like to meet him. Dylan’s demeanor changes dramatically from the cynical smart-ass celebrity poet/performer that he’s playing for the student to the slightly perplexed and hesitant young man being summoned by the voice of an unknown authority of some sort.  There’s a cut to the scene in which he’s introduced to the visitor and her three sons (two of which have the same name!)  Control of the discourse shifts from Dylan to the High Sheriff’s Lady with Dylan adopting the position of the shy, polite young subject obediently listening to his guest and graciously shaking hands with her sons.

The second clip comes from roughly the same period of Dylan’s life as portrayed in the recent No Direction Home.  This is after the tour of England at the time of the infamous appearance of Dylan’s electric band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.  The montage is very different from Pennebaker’s.  Here we see Dylan talking about his intentions and interests vis a vis those of his critics.  The scene also includes, as is typical of the entire film, excerpts from interviews with other musicians, producers, technicians, and friends, still-photos and clips from the recording sessions, interviews, and performances.

The differences between DLB and NDH couldn’t be more dramatic.  Where Pennebaker’s style is rough, direct, the camera present but unobtrusive, the subject’s behavior documented in apparently unmediated fashion, Scorsese is smooth, highly refined, and scrupulously selective for the liberal public television audience (no reference to drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. — all significant components of Dylan’s life and work.)  But, of course, we know that some of these disparities are misleading.  Both films are constructions.  Both are selective and well-crafted.  But it seems irrefutable that the cinema verité style used by Pennebaker in filming his subject makes it more likely that the camera will catch those traumatic moments when the real pokes through the “big Lie” of the symbolic network.  What the filmmaker does with the footage is another matter.  Isn’t it a far more difficult for Scosese to represent his complex and contradictory subject if all he uses are sections strategically cut from the authorized version?

Now the highly refined approach taken by Scorsese in No Direction Home might bear some superficial resemblance to the so-called “postmodern” style of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line.  In both cases the interviewer is not represented on camera and remains invisible to the viewer who is presented with a carefully crafted story re-assembled from hours of testimony and thousands of images.  Yes, of course, but there are important differences as well.

Contrary to what he suggests, Morris’ The Thin Blue Line has at its core a technique taken directly from cinema verité but disguised by Morris in the editing process.  I’m speaking here of the way the camera stays with the subject long enough for the inherent complexity and contradictions of the subject to emerge.  The orthodox style of Pennebaker makes these elements visible by means of the long take so that the viewer witnesses them on the screen.  Morris gets the same result by keeping the subject engaged in conversation during the filming of the interviews.  You don’t witness Morris the interviewer until the very end of TTBL.  But he’s there throughout the filming, talking with his subjects and, more importantly, keeping them talking.  And that’s the key.  His experience is that if they talk long enough, the “unexpected” begins to emerge and the truth is finally revealed through discourse.  Isn’t that precisely the rationale behind the unblinking gaze of the cinema verité camera which Morris so adamantly disavows?

Now we see what Morris is getting at when he claims that working in the cinema verité style is equivalent to a graphic designer adopting a particular look and feel by choosing, for example, the Times New Roman font over Helvetica.  There’s an insight there, but it’s not at all made clear by the analogy.  Notice that he’s comparing a general approach to filmmaking, one that includes a wide range of techniques, on the one hand, with the very precise choice of a graphic element — the font — on the other.  His aim is to show that cinema verité style is not sufficient for capturing the truth — it no more guarantees truth in film than does graphic design in the press.  But this poor analogy disregards a valuable contribution of cinema verité filmmaking by concealing an important and contradictory detail not at the level of style, viz. the sustained openness to the subject.  This is the strategy Morris takes from the cinema verité toolbox and uses to the same end — the disclosure of truth.  Granted, Morris presents the results of the unblinking eye (and ear) of the camera in a different way, with lots of cuts interspersed with re-enactments, clips from Hollywood movies, other talking heads, etc. etc.  But the effect and goal is the same — maybe not “truth 24 times per second”, but truth nonetheless.  And that’s the key to Morris’ insight as an investigative filmmaker.

Morris’ disavowal of cinema verité is not unique.  A number of filmmakers have, in recent years, taken adversarial positions.  So, for example, Werner Herzog, in search of what he calls “ecstatic truth”, claims “the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.”  (See his “Minnesota Declaration“.) The distinction Herzog attempts to articulate is that of truth versus (mere) facts.  For example, he says “Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth…. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination…. Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts.”  In contrast, he claims “[t]here are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

This suggests more than a casual link between Herzog and Morris who often introduces “fictions”, fabrications, and dissembling in his investigations.  All the parties involved in the murder of a police officer in TTBL are put on the stand; divergent testimonies are presented and illustrated; questions raised; the evidence laid out for the viewer.  Their styles are different.  In Herzog’s case, for example in the recent films Wheel of Time and Grizzly Man, the filmmaker guides the narrative by means of voice-over.  This provides both a personal perspective and running interpretation of the events depicted on the screen.

When asked recently about the work of Errol Morris, Herzog elaborated on the nature of “ecstatic truth” and its role in fiction as well as non-fiction film.

[Y]ou must seek out and search for deeper strata of truth that are possible, for example, in great poetry. When reading a great poem by Robert Frost, you sense there’s a deep, deep truth inherent in it, and you can never name it. It’s the same thing as what I call the “Ecstatic Truth.” An Ecstatic Truth is possible in documentaries and of course in my feature films — I’ve always striven for that. It is something deeply inherent, where you recognize yourself as a human being again, where you find images that have been dormant inside of you for so many years and all of a sudden it becomes visible and understandable for you — you read the world differently, your perceptions change. And Errol is one of those who is going for the Ecstatic Truth, and stylizes and invents.

But doesn’t this approach suggest a divergence in their conceptions of truth?  Are they talking about the same thing? Where Morris plays the role of detective or investigative reporter, digging up the facts and putting his witnesses on the stand, Herzog is searching for the runic.  Morris’ insistence on reality, the causal network of events, the fact that things happen a certain way seems to ground his approach in empirical analysis and scientific investigation.  Herzog’s quest for “poetic, ecstatic truth” suggests a link to Heidegger’s unconcealing of Being and, hence, a radically different ontology in which the sharp distinction between everyday fact and fiction is not so obvious.  Herzog’s goal is truth in the sense of the real (“true”) nature of things.  One’s relation to such “truth” is not precluded by interpretation and imaginative engagement.  They often play an instrumental role in gaining access to the other “strata” — the “deeply inherent” side of human experience.

It’s very blurred [the distinction between fact and fiction] and things in my [non-fiction] films are partially staged. It’s not just a position of observing and recording. One of the very beautiful scenes in Wheel of Time, the lonesome bodyguard at the end who seems to be forgotten and not called off his duty and protecting no one from not much of a crowd. That is staged. The distinction between what I see and record just as an observer and what I stage and the way I narrate the film and use music and the way I create a certain climate is all different from what you would normally expect from a documentary…. I’ve always made it very clear that for the sake of a deeper truth, a stratum of very deep truth in movies you have to be inventive, you have to be imaginative. Otherwise you will end up with what cinema verité does — they are the accountants of truth. I’m after something deeper. [See IDF interview with Herzog.]

In the final scene from Wheel of Time you get a sense for Herzog’s approach to non-fiction filmmaking and his poetic search for the unspeakable.  He claims he’s after that which eludes the gaze of the “accountants of truth”.  He uses a number of strategies to get at the “hidden strata”, not all of which are accounted for by the staging or re-enactment of a scene — a technique he may have picked up from Morris.  Rather, there is another, more common tool he shares with other poetic filmmakers such as Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as with the dreaded “accountants” of cinema verité.  Here I refer once again to the technique of the lingering gaze at the subject — the slow takes that resist rapid cuts from one image to the next and invite the viewer to contemplate and reflect on what one sees — used by Herzog to disclose the “truth” that would otherwise be lost.

Now you may accuse me of exaggerating this point about the long take when applied to Errol Morris, so let me make it clear that I’m not claiming he uses long visual takes, although these do occur from time to time in his films.  Rather, my point is that he applies the same logic to his interviews, knowing as he does that through patiently sustained and informal “interrogation”, the truth is likely emerge.

So is the distance between Herzog and Morris, in the end, due less to their visual styles than to their differing conceptions of truth? Can their separation be explained at the level of ideology — between the mysterious object of Herzog’s desire which contains a hidden kernel that resists symbolic representation in language and Morris’ relentless pursuit of the concrete fact of the matter about what happened, to whom, and when in the concrete world of material relations?  In short, is truth, for Herzog, a fetish?

Žižek: Part 2

Talk about the “big Other”! Taylor’s film makes heavy use of extreme closeups to capture the animated, restless, nervously gesticulating philosopher-as-third-base-coach engaging in his characteristic stream of logical reversals and psychoanalytic reflections on political ideology and current affairs, peppered with suggestive illustrations drawn from popular culture — high, low, and everything in between. For those who have seen Žižek “in the flesh”, the representation on the screen is accurate but obscene. The iconic image presented by Taylor, which frequently fills 40-60% of the frame and viewed from below, casts a dark shadow over the viewer.  Žižek claims to be a monster; not just a crazy and charismatic theoretician who, behind the façade, is really a sweet, sensitive, caring human being. No, he likes to think of himself as a kind of alien. I suppose the film, unwittingly or otherwise, contributes to this fantasmatic image.

The camera follows the philosopher around his home and office in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and on the international lecture circuit. In public, Žižek is always accompanied by a manuscript hot off the press from which he reads, digresses, and reads some more, whether lecturing to a large auditorium in Buenos Aires or to a small group in a SoHo art gallery. After the 60-90 minute lecture there’s a Q&A lasting nearly as long. One quickly learns why his friends call him Fidel. When asked what would seem to be a straightforward question, often to clarify a rather minor point, he’s likely to talk nonstop for an hour.

Although she has some 80 hours of footage, Taylor never lingers for long on Žižek’s expectorations. (Perhaps they’ll make it on to the DVD.) Rather than conveying his views through the dazzling intensity and duration of a Žižek lecture (which would be truly avant-garde — think Godard around 1970 — but  commercial suicide), she provides philosophical soundbites — brief quotes taken from Žižek’s writings — as textual interludes.

While she must provide a sense for Žižek’s Marxist and psychoanalytic discourse, Taylor’s avowed interest is capturing “the predicament of the public intellectual today, and Žižek’s strategies for coping with it.”* But it’s hard to believe that what we find in Žižek’s rockstar following is likely to be replicated outside of a very few cases — Noam Chomsky and perhaps a few others. (The late Jacques Derrida also comes to mind.)  Can you imagine nearly any other “public intellectual” such as Paul Berman, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Walzer, Jürgen Habermas, or Judith Butler being stalked outside lecture halls and hounded desperately by admiring young autograph-seekers? “Ich don’t think so.”

Unlike Taylor, I claim the subject of Žižek! is idiosyncratic. What we witness is the plight of the “crude” (his term, not mine) Lacanian/Marxist philosopher, well-versed in German Idealist philosophy, a lover of classical and romantic music, fluent in several languages, an avid reader of novels (high and low), with a repertoire of dirty jokes, who has seen more films than all of us put together and knows how to use all of the above to illustrate the day-to-day workings of ideology, elucidate the most arcane psycho-analytic concepts, and consistently delight his audience with surprising insights into human experience which constantly defy common sense and conventional pieties.

After the screening on opening night, Žižek was present for “a brief” Q&A. This, of course, provided the filmmaker an opportunity to capture more material for the “special features” section of the DVD release of the film. But for Žižek it was the return of the repressed. Following Astra Taylor’s acknowledgement of the contributions of her crew, Žižek said that he did not intend to thank anyone.  No way. The experience was boring and painful. Period.

That said, he turned to the manuscript in his hand and launched into a brief critique of the film — he found his own appearance grotesque and unappealing — followed by a lecture on Stalinist history and Lacanian ethics.

He ended with one observation and a command. All of Lacan’s talk in the late writings about James Joyce, he claims, is misguided. The writer that best captures the subject of Lacanian ethics is Beckett who embodies, in The Unnameable, the will to go on in spite of the utter impossibility and absurdity of life. Ironically, perhaps, I thought again of Chomsky, who continues to work as ardently, consistently, and obsessively as Žižek. While I can’t go into it here, I suspect that there’s a hard-working radical enlightenment monk somewhere in Žižek. In any case, the two exemplify the unflagging persistence that so often appears in Beckett.

In typical Žižekian fashion, his lecture exceeded the limits allowed by the institutional framework. The IFC’s manager, at the side of the stage, repeatedly signaled the filmmaker, seated on the stool next to Slavoj, to give Žižek the hook. Taylor placed her hand on his shoulder saying, “We have to go.” “Yeah, yeah, I know.  I’ll stop immediately”, Žižek said, and then continued answering the question he’d been asked about Bukharin’s relation to Stalin.

Several minutes later, after yet another reminder, Žižek finished his point. While Astra Taylor thanked everyone for coming and the audience applauded, Žižek indicated to her that he had one more thing to say. “Astra will hate this. Okay, sure, watch the movie.  But BUY the books.”
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* Astra Taylor, quoted in “The Žižek Effect” by Scott McLemee.
Photo by Kate Milford courtesy of Zeitgeist Films website.

Žižek: Part 1

Žižek!, a documentary by Astra Taylor which attempts to portray “the man and his ideas”, opened in NYC last night with an 8:00 PM screening at the IFC Theater and a “Q & A” with Žižek after the film.  Žižek also lectured to an overflow crowd in Swayduck Auditorium at The New School where he has taught and lectured frequently over the last decade or so.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek brings to the academic and cultural scene in the U.S. a phenomenon well-known in other parts of the world — the avant-garde intellectual as both provocateur and public figure.  Some of the best known recent examples have come from France and include “authors” such as Jacques Lacan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze.  In France and many other European countries where television, radio, and the media generally operate in a more critical and sophisticated environment than one finds in the U.S., such “public intellectuals” are often exposed to a large audience.

In this country, the circulation of philosophical ideas and the “buzz” surrounding those who offer novel and often surprising approaches to the ways in which we think about and conceptualize human experience and social relations are typically limited to artists, writers, designers, graduate students and junior faculty in the social sciences and humanities hungry for alternatives to what they perceive as a moribund intellectual climate resistant and irrelevant to contemporary experience.  The “general public” is not exposed to such emerging trends in intellectual fashion.  If anything, they get wind of highly mediated caricatures used by neoconservative critics to stir up public resentment and political opposition to a “liberal agenda” in the culture wars.

Given both his interest in popular culture and the hyperbolic commercial channels of PR in this country, Žižek has become “an intellectual rockstar”.  The scene at The New School was a typical example of the response to a Žižek “appearance”.  The lecture was sponsored by the philosophy department at the (recently re-branded) New School for Social Research (f/k/a the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science or, simply, “the GF”, and now affectionately referred to by insiders as the “NewSSR”).  There was, for all intents and purposes, no publicity other than a few internal and very low-key announcements along with word of mouth.  The lecture was scheduled to begin at 4:00.  By 3:30, every seat in the auditorium was filled.  Those who did not arrive in time for a seat were standing in the aisles from front to rear on both sides.  A number were seated on the floor of the speaker’s platform and several curious onlookers were standing in the back in the sunken vestibule of the room occluded by a wall of chairs with no view to the front.  There was a line outside hoping to get in and many others who were turned away.

Roughly four hours later, over on Sixth Avenue at the IFC Theater, the screening room was packed.  After a brief introduction by the manager of the theater and the filmmaker, Astra Taylor, and a short by D. A. Pennebaker from 1958, Žižek was on the big screen.

(To be continued…)

The Perpetually Unsolvable Puzzle of Contemporary Art

Much has been written in the last several years about the
turning point in art and culture that occurred in the mid-’60s. Arthur Danto characterizes it as a shift from
the modern to the "contemporary". If we accept this distinction and assume we have a reasonably clear idea
what falls under the concept of the modern, one is inclined to ask what is
brought into focus through the concept of the contemporary. What does it mark other than the indexical
"now" or "the mythological present"?

In a recent essay entitled "The Contemporary and the Historical", Donald Kuspit argues that the contemporary is that which precedes, resists, and lies outside history, that is, a history constructed
according to the criterion of narrative coherence—a fitting together of events
and objects in such a way that each finds its unique place in relation to an
overall configuration. On Kuspit’s view, history is the solution to a puzzle wherein the parts fit together in a clear and satisfying way—"a consistent narrative integrating some of these events in
a system or pattern that simultaneously qualifies and transcends them by giving
them some sort of purposiveness, appropriateness and meaning, thus making them
seem fated" or inevitable. [Kuspit’s essay has also been the subject of discussions by Dan and JL at Grammar.police.]

Kuspit’s analysis of the contemporary, which makes no
mention of Danto, is similar in many respects to the latter’s conception of the
posthistorical.

I think of posthistorical art as
art created under conditions of what I want to term “objective
pluralism,” by which I mean that there are no historically mandated
directions for art to go in…. Objective pluralism…means that there are no historical possibilities truer than any other. It is, if you like, a period of artistic entropy, or historical disorder.
[Arthur Danto, from a lecture given at SVA, 18 February 1993.]

Kuspit also acknowledges pluralism as a mark of the
postmodern, i.e. the "unlimited expansion of the contemporary". He
claims that this "radical pluralism…has made a mockery of the belief that
there is one art that is more ‘historical’ than any other. Thus history has
become as absurd and idiosyncratic as the contemporary."

In words that echo Danto’s defense of "the end of
art", Kuspit says

There may be a history of modern
art and a history of traditional art, but there can be no history of postmodern
art, for the radically contemporary can never be delimited by any single
historical reading…. In postmodernity…[there] is no longer any such thing as
the judgment of history, only an incomplete record of the contemporary…. Art
history’s attempt to control contemporaneity—and with that the temporal flow of
art events—by stripping certain art events of their idiosyncracy and
incidentalness in the name of some absolute system of value, was overwhelmed by
the abundance of contemporary art evidence that proposed alternative and often
radically contrary ideas of value…. In attempting to establish certain art as
more legitimate and necessary than other art, history writing implicitly
privileges some art as more creative and ideologically correct than other art.

By contrast, according to Kuspit, the extra-historical
nature of the contemporary makes possible a plurality of interpretations that
keep the art work alive and "in play", rather than fixed, resolved,
the puzzle solved. "This enhances its contemporaneity, that is, the more
communication about and interpretation of it, the more contemporary it seems,
that is, the more alive in the present, as it were, and thus in less and even
no need of permanence." As soon as
historical status is claimed for an art object, "it withers on the
contemporary vine, losing its creative resonance…."

When the contemporary object is cast in stone and projected
into the future as art of historical value, it becomes "a fetishized
product, as though the creative process that brought it into being is beside
its point. In fact, the process is completed by its creative interpretation,
which is ongoing—a perpetual re-becoming and thus de-reification and
dis-establishing of the art product."

Only when there is nothing left to
interpret and communicate is the object complete, that is, resoundingly
concrete, which means that it is a product that has lost the vital resonance or
aura it had when in process—a resonance or aura that can be restored by a
rejuvenating injection of dynamic interpretation. It is perhaps inevitable that
art history misplaces the concreteness of the work process that is art, for art
history is subliminally concerned with the legitimacy of objects, and only
reified objects are legitimate from the perspective of history. History
writing, then, is necessarily an act of reification, and reification goes hand
in hand with idolization — the antithesis of critical consciousness.

Thus, the contemporary, for both Danto and Kuspit, marks a
space within which critical questions and interpretations are always in play,
always engaging, forever reinventing what we see in the works and through them.

The logic of Kuspit’s position seems to suggest that the
"contemporary" is more of an attitude than a temporal marker — a
critical state of mind that governs one’s engagement with an art object,
keeping its contingency in play. In principle, one could approach an artwork
from any historical period as a "contemporary" work, i.e. make it
"contemporary" by applying one’s creative imagination to the
interpretation of the work and one’s critical consciousness to one’s own
theoretical framework, unencumbered by "history".

This clearly differs from Danto’s view of the contemporary
which makes modern and pre-modern works alien in some fundamental way —
aspects of another "form of life" governed by a different structure
of art criticism — another paradigm which we understand, at best, from a
psychological and existential distance.

Since at least 1977, in a memorable essay published in Artforum entitled "Art Criticism:
Where’s the Depth?", Kuspit has been arguing for a "revitalized
idealistic criticism" and the necessary role of criticism in enabling the
work to endure by transcending its particularity. His argument extends to the ontology of art
when he claims that a critical engagement is necessary to complete the work.  Critical
consciousness is needed to constitute a (whole) work and its "aura".
Only then is the work fully realized and knowable. Only then do the relevant details emerge and
enable description of the whole and its parts. "In the last analysis the
presence of the work — its way of being present — depends upon critical
reflection of it, and criticism’s effort to formulate general ideas is an
effort to ground the particular work is such a way that it will have a durable
presence." ["AC", Artforum,1977]

Given the prevalence of a largely descriptive and
compromised art criticism in today’s media, one would do well to re-examine
Kuspit’s theory and practice for ways out of the current impasse.