Saturday, July 31, 2010

hipster conformity

our colors match. be cool. conform.

above and beyond

Paul Gauguin - Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898)

abstraction is "the essence, or real sense of things"

Apollonius' sculpture known as the Belvedere Torso may have been of a satyr and originally it was certainly a complete figure. The Greek ideal of beauty was grounded in wholeness, and a partial or unfinished figure would have been unthinkable in ancient times. Apollonius' statue contradicted earlier Classical ideals of moderation both in its focus upon excessive muscular development (hence, imbalance between mind and body) and in an attention to anatomical details unbalanced imaginative overall design.

After the torso' rediscovered in the Renaissance, it gained partial-figure concept developed by Rodin, who in turn had derived his inspiration from such ancient fragments as the Belvedere Torso. Constantin Brancusi stripped his body to a point where its shapes have been generalized into a few cylindrical volumes. (Despite its title, the ambiguity of its gender creates of this sculpture a kind of "impartial" figure.) Simplification to the point of absolute reductiveness was the means by which he thought his art could approach the essence, or "real sense," of things (and naturalistic sculpture isnt real?). At a certain point in the process of reductiveness, as Brancusi found, the body can become associated with other, nonhuman shapes of a botanical or technological character, depending in part upon whether the material was wood or bronze. (This piece can be exhibited successfully even if inverted, something wholly impossible in naturalistic art.) Thus a plurality of associations, which broaden the frame of sculptural reference, are possible. Brancusi had no desire to emulate what he called the "beefsteak" of the Belvedere Torso or the sculptures of Rodin. His final surfaces are the outcome not of modeling but of rubbing and polishing. By reducing the torso to elementary but kindred and still sensual shapes, he was able to achieve sculpture that was for him perfect in its proportions and over-all concordance.

Hans Arp's Human Lunar Spectral has certain affinities with the Belvedere Torso and yet remains suggestively ambiguous. The torsion of the former recalls the flexibility of the Greek work but lacks any definite evidence of spine, pelvis, or muscle. There are also affinities in the lower portions of both; but Arp's form gives no hint of a skeletal or muscular substructure. Both Arp and Brancusi helped introduce into modern art a "sculpture without parts." Unlike Brancusi's torso, that of Arp seems capable of growth or swelling and contraction, thereby having greater reference to organic life. Rodin had defined sculpture as the art of the hole and the lump, yet as something always tied to the body's configuration.

Arp gave a purer and more obvious demonstration of sculpture as a logical succession of pliant concave and convex surfaces enclosing a volume. The rightness of this sequence is measurable not against the standard of the human body but only in terms of the sculpture itself.

Sculptors since the Egyptians and Greeks had frequently used the human body to personify some aspect of nature. (The Greeks used reclining male figures as river gods.) Modern sculptors such as Arp and Henry Moore have tended to see the body in terms of nature and to fuse qualities of both into a single work, thereby suggesting the unity of all life.

Woman receives a new life and serenity in the work of Henry Moore. In terms of the problem of disparate and unevenly distributed shapes referred to previously, Moore transformed the body to effect a more satisfactory sculptural balance, consistency, and continuity. When Moore reduced the size and definition of the head, eliminated the feet and hands, fused normally distinct or unconnected body parts, and introduced a great hollow in the middle of the torso, he was not motivated by a superficial desire to shock. His rephrasing of the body and investing it with a tissuelike surface created strong and fluid rhythms that for him suggest linkages of man and nature. His reclining forms of wood and stone seem shaped—that is, smoothed down—by the corrosive and abrasive action of the elements. The reclining pose had been traditionally associated with tranquillity and dignity, and these connotations were still honored. The living body possesses many openings, and Moore's use of hollows derives from mixed associations, from esthetic and sexual reveries centering on the inner cavities of the body, the womb, as well as fantasies and inspiration from caves and holes in wood and rock. His personal image exalts qualities and processes sensed, if not seen, in the body and elsewhere in nature.

- Albert Elsen

a big step toward abstraction

One of Rodin's most dramatic contributions historically was his demonstration that parts of the body were dispensable in a finished sculpture. In 1900 he exhibited publicly for the first time a small headless and armless study made for his John the Baptist. Some years later he enlarged this work and gave it the title Walking Man. Inspired by his study of the fragmented figures of antiquity in museums, Rodin became convinced that a complete work of art did not presuppose an entire figure. He cited the example of portrait busts and pointed out that in Greek fragments we can appreciate perfect beauty (a premise to which the Greeks themselves would have objected). When Rodin eliminated the head and arms from his sculpture, he also removed its identity and the traditional means for rhetorical expression. As pedestrian a subject as a man walking now took on the aspect of universal drama, and for the first time biological man became the central artistic concern. From certain angles the Walking Man, in full stride and with the upper part of his torso tilted forward and to the right, appears about to topple over. The powerful legs suggest a pushing off from the back foot and a receiving of weight and downward pressure on the front foot—a simultaneous condition that is impossible in life yet believable in Rodin's sculpture. Like Michelangelo, Rodin was willing to adjust anatomy in the interest of artistic plausibility. When asked why he had left off his figure's arms and head, Rodin replied, "A man walks on his feet."

Alberto Giacometti's take on the walking man

greek vs gothic sculpture

The Spear Carrier shows the relation to man to the world as one of self-confidence. It represents a frank extension into art of man's own ego, and signifies its creator's concern with the here and now, not his speculation on vague, mystical subjects or death. What in Homeric times had been remote, distant, and feared was brought within man's ken and perception. The Classical nude thus reflects a man-centered world, one where man is the focus and measure of all things.

The Classical Greek figure without clothing must be termed "nude" rather than "naked." The latter term suggests shame, self-consciousness, an unaccustomed state. The nude figure instead is one perfectly at ease without garments. For the Greeks, the ideal of nudity separated them from the barbarians. They had no sense of sin or shame in respect to the unclothed body.

The balance and rhythm of the Spear Carrier signifies not only control of the body but the training of the mind and the Apolline values of moderation. The Classical view of beauty depended upon a subtle manipulation of opposites. The fifth-century "beauty pose" showed a condition of rest tempered by movement, a balance between perfect energy and perfect repose. The artistic device that permits the capturing of this dualism was counterpoise; that is, for every movement in one direction, there is a countering tendency in another.

In form and meaning, the figure of Isaiah is the antithesis of the Spear Carrier; in purpose, however, the two are similar. Both are concrete realizations of human beliefs, which presented the viewer with ideal modes of being in the guise of heroes greater than himself. The Christian figure testifies to the existence and superiority of a spiritual world transcending the mundane sphere of the viewer.

The spear carrier is an athlete in the usual physical sense; Isaiah, an athlete of the spirit. The movement and proportion of Isaiah was directed in its appeal less to the eye than to the mind. There is an excitement in the prophet's pose, a sort of spastic and unself-conscious total gesture that mirrors his spiritual intensity.

The rational attitude and sensory experience of the Greek artist, which he animated his optimistic figures, was alien or untenable for his Gothic counterparts. The bodies of the Gothic saints comprise refuges from the uncertainties, tensions, and anxieties of the natural world. There is no hint of the repose and relaxation emblematic of man's concord with himself, with his society, or the world. The Gothic world could not accept the outlook of the Greeks.

Similarly, Donatello's Mary Magdalen sculpture is a merciless study of the body made less than human, first through self-indulgence and then through a self-denying asceticism. He renewed the late medieval dichotomy between inner truth and surface beauty (status change). The Magdalen has become a living corpse, like a medieval reminder of death and the wages of sin. Only the zeal of the convert animates the leathery flesh of this skeletal figure, holding out the same hope as baptism. The spiritual intensity imparted to the sculpture by Donatello transcends its physical repellence and makes the work esthetically compelling. The slight gap between the hands creates a life-giving tension that complements the psychological force emanating from the head.

The Age of the Infovore

email is free.
youtube is free.
amazon catalog and reviews are free.
pandora is free.
blogs are free.
new york times is free.
libraries are free.
wikipedia is free.
bittorent is free.
google is free.
the internet is free.

It is absolutely amazing the amount of information that is out on the internet that is free, completely free. There are ads embedded in some of this information, but nevertheless, the information is free.

There's a lot of talk about how price inflation is getting out of control and indeed for goods such as health care, higher education, housing, energy, prices are going up. But at the same time, the price of high-quality content is going down and access to that content is going up. For me, reading and learning about the world is a fundamental part of my identity and it's just what I do for fun. Competitive consumerism is not my thing.

I'm realizing that I don't need lots of money to be happy and content in this age of the Internet and I feel really good because of that.

Friday, July 30, 2010


myth is neither allegory nor philosophy but identification

Within myth, the faithful hardly believe in anything; they simply and unself-consciously respond to the world they perceive with the aid of the myth, a world, moreover, that they see as real. The beliefs we observe in others are, for the insiders, invisible and taken for granted. The fan does not believe the Red Sox are the best team; he knows it. The devout don't believe Jesus is the Christ; they encounter Jesus directly as the Christ. The myth implicitly presents the world as it is, not as it may possibly be.

When the believer says, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet,” he is bearing witness, to the facts as he sees them, as realities in the universe not belief in his mind.

Myth can convey meaning and purpose, but it does so with a price and a danger. That’s what it looks like from the outside. But from the inside, it doesn’t look that way. From inside of myth, we become more authentic, and life gains greater significance and meaning, the more we identify with the mythic tale.

What constitutes a worthwhile life?—cannot be asked while we are living mythically. From inside myth, the question of meaning never arises. All myth can do is tell compelling stories. To ask critical or abstract questions of a myth—how the stories are related or what ideas they represent, for example—is already to violate the mythic mind. Myth is neither allegory nor philosophy but identification. The most important thing about myths is not the depth of ideas they contain— remember, I said they calm the mind precisely by staying on the surface of things—but whether they are compelling. To remind a companion who emerges in tears from a viewing of The Last Picture Show or some similarly sad movie that "It's only a story; it's not real" is both to miss the point and to misunderstand the compelling nature of, and total identification with, myth.

We begin to ask why and what for when faith and myth become self-conscious. Mythic thinking breaks down whenever we become reflective or self-conscious. Meaning is the price we pay for self-consciousness.

Faith over belief: "People say that what we are all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we are seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance with our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's finally all about."

- Joseph Campbell

belief vs faith

However important knowing the characteristics of myths may be, we miss something essential if we do not distinguish between knowing about myth and living mythically. The word about connotes a separation between the knower and the known that is alien to genuine myth. One can formulate propositions that are either true or false about an object. Persons outside a myth can characterize and describe myth, as I am doing here, but knowing about a myth is different from living from within it. I may know all the statistics of the Atlanta Braves baseball team—how many games they've won and lost, their team batting average and ERAs—but that is different from being a fan who identifies with the team and the mythology of baseball.

What separates a fan from someone who knows about—one who is inside a myth from one who is outside—is emotional identification, ritual, and imaginative reenactment. The fan identifies with the team and its heroes. The fan is happy when the team wins and is despondent when it loses. Similarly, the person living within a myth identifies wholly with the characters and events of the myth. Eric Havelock emphasizes that the ritual oral performance and retelling of Greek myth elicited an active, hypnotic identification of the audience with the myth. The audience was not merely watching a performance of a myth; it was ritually engaged in a reenactment and identification with it. In these circumstances, audience and performer become one. Within myth, I do not think about Achilles; rather, I wholly identify with Achilles; in a sense, I become him, as long as I submit myself to the incantation. This fanatical identification with the myth annihilates my autonomous, separate ego. I no longer live "as if" but in and within the myth.

The absolutely critical distinction between knowing about myth and living within myth is clarified by Wilfred Cantwell Smith's discussion of faith and belief. Belief is analogous to knowing about. It is both propositional and provisional. Belief is "the concept by which we convey the fact that a view is held, ideationally, without a final decision as to its validity. Thus, it is reductionistic. Belief rests between complete skepticism, on the one hand, and certain knowledge, on the other. From the outside, we say of someone that they believe in, rather than know, the Resurrection, the four Noble Truths, and the superiority of the Red Sox to the Yankees. And, as we all know, beliefs can be true or false, whereas knowledge is unassailable. In contrast, faith elevates belief to a religious level. Faith is a total, engaged response to and identification with myth that annihilates the critical distance between it and me. It is through the eyes of faith that one sees whatever one sees, not as a proposition that can be true or false, but as the way things are. Faith engages heart and soul. It is not enough to know about; one must directly experience and respond through the auspices of faith.

- Dennis Ford

the postmodernist a tourist, not a pilgrim; a wayfarer, not a missionary. Having abandoned the search for
the truth and the meaning, the point for postmodernism is the journey, not the end.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


For the Kids:

You better watch out!
Better not cry!
Better not pout!
I'm telling you why,
Santa Claus is comin' to town.

He's making a list
and checking it twice.
He's going to find out who's naughty and nice.
Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town.

For the Adults:

You better watch out!
Better not cry!
Better not pout!
I'm telling you why,
Jesus Christ is comin' to town.

He's making a list
and checking it twice.
He's going to find out who's naughty and nice.
Jesus Christ Is Comin' To Town.

The only way to challenge a myth is to confront it with another, more compelling myth. One moves, not from falsehood to truth, but from one god--or baseball team--to another.

[fast forward to postmodern world]

Nihilism too is a culminating mythology of a long skeptical tradition that says that there is no meaning in an otherwise objective or neutral universe without purpose. Ironically, the myth of a meaningless universe is itself a way of infusing meaning into the experience of meaninglessness. According to this myth, we gain authenticity, dignity, and meaning by honestly and bravely accepting that the universe is without intrinsic meaning. The myth tells us that we are superior to those who live false, inauthentic lives by believing in one myth or the other, whether that myth be the American Dream or a socialist revolution. There's nobility and art in creating meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe. Paradoxically, a mythic strategy is effective for investing life with meaning even when the myth is telling us there is no meaning.

take the good, without the bad

Capitalism ceases to amaze me. The affluence it allows and provides.

But for a system that provides for our basic needs so well, it
perpetually creates new desires that are nearly insatiable.   

so instead of being happy, we're depressed.   sad.

the cost of modernity

If the questions “Why?” and “What to do?” find an answer neither in our biological instincts nor in the secondary instincts of our postmodern culture, then what to do? Where do we go from here? What do we do when the truth is exposed and the truth is that life is meaningless?

Several, ultimately futile possibilities exist on both the individual and social levels for at least temporarily denying meaninglessness and its associated depression. One strategy is to return to our primary instincts. The pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim described the failure of culture as deculturation, a state, he said, that reduces its victims to the animal level of chronic fighting or fornication. If I find direction or meaning neither in culture nor in more self-conscious attempts to answer the why questions, then I may find solace in my body, emotions, and pure, unmediated experience. From the perspective of these strategies, meaninglessness is not the problem; thinking self-consciously is the problem. Avoid or deny the questions, concede that you are nothing more than an instinctual animal in an indifferent universe, and you've solved the problem. Alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual obsessions, and adventurousness—in which meaning remains, but only while engaged in extreme and risky activities, including violence—have all been attributed to misguided and finally self-destructive attempts to suppress the question of meaning by drowning in instinctual behavior. The climber Mark Jenkins articulates perfectly the experience and joy of losing oneself entirely in the body this way: "At this moment, all I know is movement. I'm not even thinking; I'm just climbing. I shut down the brain and let the body be what it is: an animal. Unbeknownst even to myself, somewhere high on the Sheila Face, I unlatch the cage. . . . The cage door swings open and out steps the beast.

On a social level, as early as 1941, Erich Fromm was writing about our collective Escape from Freedom. Why the need to escape? From what are we escaping? Fromm argues that a long history of liberation—from first nature, race and family, the authority of the Church and then the state (the Reformation and the rise of democracies, for example)—terminated in the achievement of individual freedom. But having attained that cherished goal, the question became "freedom not from what but for what?" Having progressively rejected the guidance and authority of revelation, community, tradition, and reason, freedom becomes a burden, and we have the absurd situation of being free to choose anything we wish but having no choices worth making.

Knowing neither what we must do nor what we should do, nor even what we wish to do, Fromm argues, we typically look for clues by watching what others do, or willingly abdicate the burden of freedom by reverting to the authority of others, whether the latest guru, pop celebrity, or political leader. Conformity and authoritarianism are thus collective strategies for relieving the anxiety that absolute freedom elicits. We willingly exchange our anxiety and freedom for compulsive activity and the answers provided by others. Conformity to the cultural norms modeled by members of our family, friends, and associates or obedient loyalty to the goals of our leaders and nation protects us from the debilitating experience of nothingness resting at the heart of modernity.

Philosophically, the modern, debilitating ideology that humankind is nothing but a complex mechanism of chemical reactions or social forces and its attendant experience of nothingness is, itself, the culmination of a long skeptical tradition. The notion of the Absurd arose when humankind's desire for meaning and purpose confronted the indifferent universe that the skeptical tradition projected. On the one hand, modernity was a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of the existential vacuum, and thus a source of the problem. On the other hand, modernity is also a solution. If one believes that the universe is indeed indifferent and without purpose, then the absurd is merely nostalgia for a world that never existed.

The modern idea that the universe, and in turn humankind, is meaningless, without intrinsic value or purpose, is both a cause of and a solution to the problem posed by the experience of nothingness. Living in the modern universe of indifferent and mechanical causation may require honesty and courage, but it is finally not absurd, whenever the nostalgia for purpose and meaning is abandoned. All one has is this world as it is, and many would claim that is sufficient. Firmly within a modern perspective, there is no answer or resolution to Tolstoy's question "Why?" Our best course of action, as a consequence, is to enjoy and make the best we can of this world as it is. Or as the literary critic Lionel Trilling expressed it poetically: "If we are in a balloon over an abyss, let us at least value the balloon. If night is all around, then what light we have is precious. If there is no life to be seen in the great emptiness, our companions are to be cherished; so are we ourselves."

Cop-out: delegitimization of traditional sources of meaning --> no meaning --> regression to self-destructive hedonism --> suppression of the question of meaning (losing yourself).

Cop-out: delegitimization of traditional sources of meaning --> no meaning --> look to another external authority for meaning (political, celebrity, guru) --> suppression of the question of meaning.

Better: delegitimization of traditional sources of meaning --> no meaning --> appreciate life for what it is --> proactively create a new myth, a new narrative for meaning and purpose.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

not a perfume, sex

not a perfume, an experience

not a handbag, a lifestyle


The world of the Odyssey and today's world are two very different worlds.

Ancient:  Honor, Courage, Bravery, Heroism, Nobility, Aristocracy.
Modern:  Aspiration, Enterprise, Efficiency, Tolerance, Democracy.

High-status occupations:
Ancient:  Soldier, Warrior, Priest, King.
Modern:  Investment Banker, Lawyer, Politician, Pro Athlete.

And as when the land appears welcome to men who are swimming,
after Poseidon has smashed their strong-built ship on the open water, pounding it with the weight of wind and the heavy seas,
and only a few escape the gray water landward
by swimming, with a thick scurf of salt coated upon them,
and gladly they set foot on the shore, escaping the evil;
so welcome was her husband to her as she looked upon him,
and she could not let him go from the embrace of her white arms.
Now Dawn of the rosy fingers would have dawned on their
had not the gray-eyed goddess Athene planned it otherwise.
She held the long night back at the outward edge, she detained Dawn of the golden throne by the Ocean, and would not let her harness her fast-footed horses who bring the daylight to people:
Lampos and Phaethon, the Dawn's horses, who carry her.
Then resourceful Odysseus spoke to his wife, saying: "Dear wife, we have not yet come to the limit of all our trials. . . .   

- Odysseus XXIII, 233-49

Odysseus, one of the meanings of whose name is "trouble," cannot rest. He will soon go off to complete his adventures.

You can go back to the amniotic sea, or you can make your surface shining and impenetrable, so no one knows you. You think you can find unalloyed happiness. Some of you are hermetically sealed; some of you are going to be terrified if you are found out. Look, I don't know why you can't just have joy. But if you're going to be truly recognized and experience joy, it has to involve trouble and pain. You can be Calypsoed or Odysseused, buried or troubled.

Some advice! Some advice to give the future leaders of the Western world, the hegemonic lawgivers, the triumphalist accountants of the white imperium!

The Odyssey is an after-the-war poem, a plea for relief and gratification, and it turns, at times, into a sensual, even carnal, celebration.

...when great Odysseus had bathed in the river and washed from his body
the salt brine, which clung to his back and his broad shoulders, he scraped from his head the scurf of brine from the barren salt sea.
But when he had bathed all, and anointed himself with olive oil, and put on the clothing this unwedded girl had given him, then Athene, daughter of Zeus, made him seem taller
for the eye to behold, and thicker, and on his head she arranged the curling locks that hung down like hyacinthine petals.
So Athene gilded with grace his head and his shoulders, and he went a little aside and sat by himself on the seashore, radiant in grace and good looks; and the girl admired him.

- Odyssey VI, 235-37

MGM in its heyday could have done no more for Gable. The elderly Homer writes about sensations and domestic comforts, about physical happiness and relations between people. His heroes have gone from fighting the war to telling stories about it, from asserting identity on the battlefield to asserting it at the feast table and in bed. The body, abused, torn, sated only by killing and savage meat-and-wine feasts in the Iliad, now requires its normal daily tending and comfort. Odysseus needs a bath and needs to get back into his own bed; his elderly father, Laertes, who has left the palace in Ithaca in disgust, and now lives in the country on the floor of a hovel, needs a winding sheet to be buried in. We are all in need of a home, an enclosure, tightly wound around us, and friends.

And now comes the surprise, the source of the Odyssey's amazing power. It turns out the poem is a huge black comedy. Just when the exhausted heroes most want rest and comfort and pleasure, they find terror and entrapment. The Odyssey is the most famous of the Nostoi, or homecoming poems—epics about the return of the heroes of the Trojan War. A disastrous return in many cases, as the men, punished by the gods for some crime or dereliction of worship, suffer catastrophic weather and shipwreck, or, landing home at last, die at the hands of treacherous wives.

In the Odyssey, you either eat, or you are eaten, and if you eat, you had better eat the right thing and in the right place. Sensual pleasures—eating the lotus blossoms that bring peace or the cattle of the sun god, which brings punishment, or yielding to the island nymphs and sirens—can destroy you or sap your will to go home.

Yes, a cruel joke! The gigantic poem is built around an excruciating paradox: The temptation to rest, to fill your stomach is almost overwhelming, yet the instant you rest, you are in danger of losing consciousness or life itself. In the end, short of death or oblivion, there is no rest, a state of being that might be called the Western glory and the Western disease. That Homer cannot attain peace—that there's something demonic, unappeasable, and unreachably alien in the spirit of the Odyssey as well as in the Iliad—has not much figured in the epic's popular reputation as a hearty adventure sage. It was a finer, more exhilarating and challenging work than most people thought.

- David Denby