Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Modes of the possible

(Excerpts from a rather intense email discussion about performance art and some of its implications last autumn, based in an example which we have considered less interesting than the general observations and lines of thought and therefore omitted here, along with a lot of the more peripheral or personally combative points.)

It is a persistent, goal-oriented effort to solve a puzzle, with which they may not have high hopes of succeeding, only the passion to find new methods of approaching it./.../ The question of body and spirit never finds an answer, but after a passionate and honest attempt at gaining insight, or some kind of result, intuitively, one is once again left at the agnostic point of departure. But if that point would be philosophically or scientifically unsatisfactory, which is also the case regarding "serious" paranormal research, it is not meaningless at all. This is because the answer is found in the work itself: the devotion, the obsession and also the playfulness they possess is in itself a unity of body and spirit, and if performance art is to have a purpose or definition, the process of employing the body in the service of the spirit should be it – in my opinion.
    If you take an interest in what music is, you will soon discover that the most important basic qualities are common to all artistic types of expression. I never tire of explaining that my basic view of music is based on music sociologist Christopher Small’s model: music is a social ritual with utopian contents, that is, where people get together to act out an ideal society within spatial and temporal limitations, by the initiation of an intricate network of relations between people, objects and ideas. Where sound structures are only a small, but indispensable component. To varying degrees, it is always about celebrating, confirming and exploring these relations. Small mentions this in passing, but viewing it in this way, as a current, present and time-based activity, makes it possible, from a human perspective, to readily apply this model to all artistic experience. The centre of the activity is what anthropologists call ritual. You could call it »the aesthetic dimension« (to borrow Kant’s expression via Herbert Marcuse, who wrote an excellent book with this title). Art is an other-worldly, or magical, experience of transcending our everyday lives. Anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr has called it a faint remnant of the magic of archaic peoples. But the faintness may indeed vary. For someone like Cecil Taylor, the quality of trance is emphasized in his playing. The connection is exemplified by a comment by an American Indian shaman, after seeing Taylor in concert: »I thought this was secret«; according to Taylor this was the best review he had ever received.

(...) what you (JB) mean by (...) the idea of virtuality of art. Meaning is achieved when the body is put into the service of the mind in meaningless work that conveys hope. That sounds like existentialism. One has to imagine the performance artist as Sisyphos, that is as being happy, talking with Camus.

I was reminded by the corporality as a key to performance art. It really is among the most pleasurable aspects (but far more for the performer than for the audience...) that it is hard physical labour of no use. Of course utility can be defined in different ways and one may choose to get stuck in paradoxes. But this is work that is productive and lacks exchange value and lacks a use value according to all conventional criteria of utility. And if one manages to create an atmosphere that allows this ritual potential to start getting realised on a collective basis, which I believe is the core of the model that you (JB) describe as Christopher Small's, then also the audience is pulled into this physical dimension. (On the other hand, the often strong sensation of boredom, sleepiness, spontaneous tickling in the feet, aching butt, or for that matter pain and feeling overrun or pinned down from very high sound volumes, I would rather regard as alienating than utopian physical exchange...) Is this the labor of the body in the service of the spirit? It could also be the other way around. The body is pulling the leg of the spirit. And in the confusion arising in that relationship, yes, the spirit can be realised, and unexpected modes of unity and play and jerky fusions may occur, yes. That is what constitutes its mystique, if you will. You are right there. I do not think NN is right in the interpretation that this is existentialism, because the hope of existentialism consists with a necessary voluntarism in the the very choice of ascribing hope, not in the real hope that may be glimpsed in the type of the work and the type of confusion chosen.
    Nevertheless I think your (JB) explanation of this carries a lot further than the specific expression you are discussing does. This expression seems to be far more nivellating, experimentally placing all imaginable human activities side by side and arbitrarily focusing on one to the point of the absurd but without ascribing it any particular potential. I am sure this is what you describe as play in the context, but play in itself is not nivellating in this postmodern sense, because for play the possibility chosen has an aura and a dynamics from overdetermination by desire, and it is specifically not at all exchangable with anything else.
    Where I want to go is just to once more, as in several discussions, emphasise the distinction between on the one hand a logical potentiality, the very idea that anything is possible, and a manifest possibility, which is the exciting real concrete psychophysical sensation that unexpectedly much is actually possible and it is enticing because it is only that which puts us into contact with the unknown, which is the core of poetry, and which is among the cornerstone of experiencing art and of creating art.
    Earlier I used to criticise CA for getting triggered by what I perceived as merely logical potentiality. He successfully rebuked me and, the way I remember it, emphasised that the logic of desire will make the selection anyway or will step into the activity as a meaning-creating dimension once an activity is chosen. This is quite correct, but also far from dead safe, there are many counterexamples, when instead the path of least resistance, conformism, and/or simple cynicism gets the last word.
    While I kept believing that there was a continuous interplay between logical and manifest potentiality, at least that the moments of the truth of art where in the leap when quantitative (logical) potentiality changed into qualitative (manifest) potentiality. This all sounds fine. But maybe it sounds fine because a hegelian explanation always sounds better than an analytical one. In practice this connection between the two meanings may be almost inexistant: since any genuine artistic activity is based in manifest potentiality, while many artists when they are interviewed or interrogated and expected to explain how their art works often grasp at logical potentiality as a mode of rhetoric and a legitimation; sometimes they will be true to their words and actually make art that expresses the unwillingness to distinguish between good and bad ideas, between hunches worthy of following and those that aren't, between the imaginative and the banal, between the exciting and the deadly boring – but on the other hand there are also those who in spite of these unexciting modes of explanation continues exerting a visionary sensibility in their praxis. That's the way it works. Art.

I would like to add one or more types of possibility to those listed by MF, and the one which is most important to me is the ontological one.
    If logical possibility is purely speculative and exists by power of the structure of logic, as an additive combinatory extension of a specific emerged pattern, I understand the manigest potentiality of which MF speaks as the experience or epiphany that possibilities are present in a particular moment.
    Now I will refer to these as logical and phenomenological possibility respectively.
    Ontological possibility I would like to see from an objectively rationalist perspective, as referring to a specific geography of possibility unevenly distributed in a dynamically evolving and causally coherent world. The fact that the world is causally coherent leads us to end up in the same question as the rationalists did: Do possibilities not exist at all (strict determinism in Spinoza's style) or does possibilities imply diverging worlds whose different globally coherent principles of selection exclude possibilities within themselves (Leibniz), as well as the question whether determinism can be combined with clinamen or any type of unstable chaotic core.
    What I here refer to as phenomenological possibility does not need to consider these questions. What I here refer to as ontological possibility is not dependent on whether the world is strictly deterministic or not, but instead on whether there are, for the individual human being in a particular moment, several alternatives and a selection is made (regardless of whether the selection couldn't have been made differently based on the dynamical coherence of the world (not of logic)). In this case, this presents itself in the phenomenological sense, but I would like to separate the presentation of this "ontological possibility" from a certain phenomenological singularity which may accompany the perception of the field of possibilities, as an indication of unfolding possibilities or as a receipt that one indeed stands before possibilities.

phenomenological possibility (the appearance of possibility 1)
There might be different singularities for, i e the hunch that there is a dog buried somewhere, that there is more to learn about something, that there is suddenly a wealth of newly acquired alternatives, or a weird object presenting evidence that the world wasn't created the way we thought. I want to distinguish these qualities of the experience from those appearances which are simultaneous with its actualisation, because if one sees a diffuse situation that indulges oneself in an interpretative delirium, then the associated quality of manifest possibility might still occur isolated, for example by elaborating by means of brainwork, without the brain simultaneously pondering a diffuse situation. The singularity, or singularities, I talk about here would be like the sense of possibility, as it presents itself, semi-attached to an actual set of possibilities.

ontological possibiltiy (the appearance of possibility 2)
I would define this as the disenveloping/evolving of a dynamic selective process, such as an interpretative delirium, a selection among alternatives of action or interpretation suggesting themselves and criteria for selection suggesting themselves, speculative fantasies about what one self, organisations, objects or subjects would be able to suggest when their different sides and qualities are combined. This ontological possibility is independent of the question of ontological determinism, and independent of whether the disenvelopment is put to music by the "feeling of possibility" (it could occur unconsciously).
    Thus, I see ontological possibility as an objective operation of the spirit in combination with the workings of other elements (the world) in it.

The virtual

The concept of the virtual has been used in different ways throughout the history of ideas. Most commonly it is synonymous with either the eidetic (the idea), the possible, or the latent. /.../ So is the possible synonymous with the latent? This is a trickier question, but I would like to say no. Both are there and are ontologically real, but the concept of the latent I think should be restricted to something which acts objectively but takes another expression or only is expressed under certain circumstances. /.../ For minds we could say that there are latent tendencies (those that work even when they are not manifested), virtual tendencies (that may be latent or manifest in different situations depending on the actual constitution of the mind or the world), and virtual possibilities (reconfigurations of the virtual constitution of the mind, depending on the totality of the world and thereby not empty logical possibility).
    The separation between the two last mentioned categories perhaps rests on the idea of the statistically probable. Or, on the idea of clinamen. For me, it rests on the idea of time as duration. /.../ This perspective corresponds with the idea of a chaotic core or a clinamen, but retains the idea of a determined virtuality. Time is brought in as a transformatory force, but in contrast to ideas of generative negativity this is about a positive generative field of possibilities actualised in the present and having a virtual structure, including the radically new without being undetermined.
    What I would like to do is putting definitions into discussion to distinguish the virtual from on the one hand the possible and on the other hand the latent. I would also like to distinguish that synthesis of duration form the experience of facing a field of possibilities. This latter distinction is mainly theoretical, but seems important to note. The syntheses of duration continue also when they are not being acknowledged as striking. Though I do believe that the experience of something being full of possibilities often coincides with a synthesising, investigative and selective mental activity before an ambiguous material, testing implications etc. An interpretative delirium or a sudden questioning of habitual conceptions (can carpets fly?).
    One last note about the virtual. If earlier philosophy, inspired by Plato, saw the Idea as something more profound, and perhaps more crystalised, beyond temporary emergences, then post-husserlian philosophy tends to see the eidetic, or virtual, specifically as emergences as such, and that which constitutes the Idea is in large parts temporary emergences (or simulacra). The eidetic is emergence as a whole, and that which is called Idea is temporary and subject to change, with contingencies as raw material. What survives and runs ahead to meet the present, both earlier experience and habitual ways of organising information, constitutes the emergent virtual structure in the present.



Rituals and symbols are everywhere. What makes them magic is their being affirmed. There are magical geographies everywhere. Psychogeographical portals and delimitations. Boundaries and signs that reconfigurate the fields of possibilities of our bodies, our posture, our focuses, what presents itself as possible courses of action. The boundaries separating an audience from performers, separating a performance ritual before an audience from a hazing event at Lundsberg private school, an appointment with the hairdresser, or a wedding.
    /.../ don't believe in the rituals they perform. They are too nihilistic. They may claim they are trying to make a carpet fly. That's bullshit. I can claim I am struggling to make a relationship work, through rituals, That's not bullshit. They may claim they don't care whether they make the carpet rise or not. That it's the attempt and not the result that counts. But they don't try, and that matters to me. I regard it as impossible that the audience possibly during the performance may be struck by the hunch that there might be a small possibility, because this is beyond their suggestive power. Instead we may all unite in a nihilistic giggle about people performing real rituals, while missing their actual magical activity. /.../ I much prefer people trying to conjure up a 4D-printer, and it doesn't matter whether they succeed or not, than people who try to conjur up grants for themselves by ridiculing visionaries.

It is not just about imagining anything, it is specifically the connection between the real and the virtual that sparks an emotion. Not distinguishing between "make-believe" and "for real", as children do already when they start playing, means that you can confuse things that are in different categories, make a carpet fly, make a relationship work, or create a functional 4D-printer. /.../ Art is both real and make-believe at the same time. One does what one does, but it is also an image, an attempt, a vision to be conveyed and pondered or digested. It doesn't have to be a possibility, but gets the chance of pondering whether it is a possibility or not. I found Marcuse's The Aesthetic Dimension to describe that way of functioning very well at that time.
    But I didn't give any particular significance to performance art being meaningless work? I don't believe in such things, and if so I have expressed myself unclearly. Art is a kind of work, and if it is meaningless it is not art, since the essence is a form of communication (conveying meaning). But then of course one might use meaningless work (of another kind) as an element in art if one so wishes.

Yes, I intended meaninglessness in a dialectic sense in my comment. /.../ The example with the carpet is significant for this rhetoric: since "everybody knows" that magic doesn't work, they make a meaningless magical effort confirming what we already know. Sartre compares this type of ritual with the fox who, after having reached for the grapes in vain, transforms them "by the power of thought" into "sour", and he calls the magical attitude that makes this transformation come about a flight behavior aiming to make the world more bearable which for good and bad characterises the condition of man. Thereby this performance appeared to me as existentialist lowbrow comedy for me, with all respect for that it may have appeared differently if one would have been there. If defining magic as "power that does not exist" one misses that it is about mental power. And it should preferrably be used for transforming peppercorns into a dragon than the other way around.

Sure. But I think it is a more precise terminology to refer to this power of the mind as imagination, like surrealists usually do. Calling it magic causes unnecessary misunderstandings, I think: it sounds like one is presupposing supernatural powers where no such powers have any explanatory power. Magical thinking and poetical thinking may in practice be the same processes, but they have different selfunderstandings, and this should not be neglected.

On the contrary, they have rather coinciding selfunderstandings, as surrealists repeatedly note. Magic according to the european tradition that surrealists usually acknowledge (Novalis, Levi, Paracelsus, Böhme, Swedenborg) stipulates a world image where we are in contact with everything, then, now and in the future, and where all manifestations are regarded as external forms hiding the unknown principles of nature, and where it depends on ourselves whether they world changes in accordance with our will or not. Poetic thinking is a recollection of the worldview of magic in that sense. Imagination on the other hand is a philosophical, psychological and aesthetical concept which may refer to almost anything relating to desire-driven production of mental images, thus a theoretically diverse concept, unproblematically used in everyday language but insufficient in a revolutionary vocabulary – "power to the imagination" and similar. Most of the surrealists that speak theoretically about magic tend to mean that imagination is an obvious element in human actions and being while magic actualises it in a specific connection, often connected with a tradition of naturale philosophy, or the child's wish-based perception of the world, or so-called primitive cultures etc; including Breton (L'Art magique), Bataille, Carrington, Colquhoun, Paz, Alleau, Chazal, etc.

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