THINGLY AFFINITIES: Conference Transcript

December 2020

(Note: Posts are in bold to distinguish them from comments)

Moderator's Welcome and Introduction to Session I (Taney Roniger)

Welcome, everyone, to Thingly Affinities! Over the next ten days we will be exploring the implications of ethical posthumanism for the visual arts, with a particular emphasis on how it might alter our perceptions of and attitudes toward aesthetic form. I’m delighted to have gathered such an accomplished and diverse group of panelists for the occasion. Thanks to their generosity, what follows promises to be a compelling and provocative dialogue. Readers are welcome to participate by sending comments or questions as we go along (see sidebar for instructions).  Below is the introduction to Session I along with the questions we’ll be addressing.


Session I  

Goodbye to an Era: Examining the Legacies of Humanism and 20th Century Formalism in Art

Friday, December 4 – Saturday, December 5


Renaissance humanism, the first of the foundational movements that contributed to the emergence of modernity over four centuries, embraced concepts of classical Greek thought, foremost among them dualism (the belief that there is a radical discontinuity between humans and nature, body and mind, self and world) and that “Man is the measure of all things” (Protagoras). The entire history of the Western arts and humanities since the Renaissance unfolded within this humanist orientation.


In many fields within the humanities today, the values of the humanist ideology on which they were founded are being called into question with increasing scrutiny. The idea of the human self as an autonomous subject rightfully presiding over a world of brute objects is giving way to a more humble worldview in which we are but one being among many. Known as the nonhuman turn, this emerging movement has brought with it much critical reassessment as the various fields examine their complicity in the humanist fallacy.  As a point of departure, this first session aims to inaugurate a similar kind of reckoning within the visual arts.


1.1    In what ways has the ideology of humanism informed our ideas about visual art, both within the art world and in the larger culture?


1.2    Has the humanist habit of conceiving of the world in dualistic terms locked the professional art world into art’s persistent dichotomy of form versus content? How did form – the material embodiment of a work of art as perceived through its visual qualities – come to be considered separate from a work’s meaning or “content”?


1.3    Although formalism (the assertion that art should be considered in terms of its form alone) dominated the art world after the 1940s, the rejection of that stance in recent decades seems to have mutated into a dismissal of form itself, now often seen as retrograde and frivolous (“empty formalism,” “mere formalism,” “zombie formalism”), with content, or concept, given artistic primacy. To what can we attribute this conflating of doctrinaire formalism with form per se, and are the forces that led to it still influential?


1.4    The legacy of Clement Greenberg-style formalism, which shaped attitudes about art for decades with its denial of content and insistence on art’s autonomy, has left us with ideas about form that artists today find untenable. What is it about Greenbergian formalism specifically that today’s art world finds so objectionable? Is there a link between the ideology of humanism and Greenberg’s conception of form?


1.5    While the deconstructive postmodernism of the 1980s and ‘90s viewed itself as a movement against humanism and modernity, its focus on denying the existence of a fixed human nature and its emphasis on the role of (human) social construction made it in many ways a continuation of the humanist program. How has the legacy of deconstructive postmodernism informed current attitudes about aesthetic form, and what is its relationship to the emergent kind of posthumanist thinking?


1.6    Are there aspects of humanism that we would wish to preserve moving forward, both within art and in the wider culture?

In response to 1.2 on dualism (Carrie Rohman)

I've been interested in the correlated binaries of mind/body, human/animal, male/female throughout all of my recent work (we acknowledge of course the “impossibility” of these dualisms, alongside their persistent discursive and cultural powers).  In my dance studies courses, I talk with students about why dance is often barely recognized as a legitimate art form, or why it seems so regularly feminized, or considered “lower than”— or a “step-child” of— the arts.  One perhaps too obvious reason is that the body is literally the instrument in dance and choreography, and the body is so material / feminized / animalized as to prove threatening and “dangerous”;  it is something that has to be tamed by concepts, or meaning, in some way.  I think it could be productive to ask whether a similar dynamic has been at play in relation to form in visual art.  Has “the material body of the work of art as perceived through its visual qualities” been— however half-consciously— deemed too lowly, feminine, creatural/material, in contradistinction to the masculinist and humanist “conceptual” apparatus, its “meaning,” so that the material form has come to be something that must be tamed or “made low,” abjected and disavowed, in relation to the work’s meaning or concept.

Secondly, if we take seriously Deleuze’s claim that viewing (or hearing etc.) art is a primarily affective and bodily experience— alongside the idea that the viewer’s conceptualizing or cognitive ascertaining of the “meaning” of an artwork is secondary to that, or post-affective— then we can ask whether the rising prominence of “concept” and its concomitant devaluing of form could be understand as having been a kind of defense against the affective/bodily power of visual art.  Have we wanted the concept to reign because it keeps us more “in control,” more so-called “human” (and masculine) in the face of art, literally in the moment that we interface with artworks.  That is, has telling ourselves that it’s the concept or meaning that matters— that we must search for the “idea” in the moment of engaging with art— staved off or contained the affective powers of art, which actually render us vulnerable, bodily, quivering creatures?  Have we considered it obvious that it is too girly / bodily to value the affective force of a work of art, first and foremost?  Would that make us “just” like animals, somehow?

Taney Roniger said…

Carrie, I'm really glad you brought up the association between form and the body (and thus femininity, animality, etc.) and this as a possible reason for form's inferior status in the visual arts. It seems very clear to me that this is a widespread -- if only semi-conscious -- undercurrent in the art world. It's interesting to hear you speculate that what's at work here is fear -- a visceral resistance, perhaps, to any reminder that we are animals -- because the sense I get in the visual arts is, on the surface at least, precisely the opposite. My sense is that form is seen as weak, "soft," meaningless, and mindless - the very opposite of powerful or threatening in any way. But I suppose you're suggesting that the casual dismissal is really a veil covering a deeper feeling far more difficult to inhabit. In any case, I've always found it a bit puzzling that for previous generations (and I'm thinking here of Clement Greenberg's time -- mid-20th century), form in the arts was decidedly masculine: detached, "pure", elevated above the messy earthly and bodily. What changed??

That said -- and this to your second point -- there is an undeniable discomfort that most people have in the face of, for example, abstract art. When there's no clearly discernible "idea," no ready "meaning" or "message" to latch on to, even art world people will go grasping after imported concepts. The anxiety is interesting (if occasionally painful) to observe. Perhaps this is exactly the being rendered "vulnerable, bodily, quivering creatures" of which you speak. This anxiety is usually attributed to people's discomfort with ambiguity, but perhaps it is much more. Perhaps it's not so much a response to what is *absent* as it is a kind of flinching from the power of what is *present* (i.e., material and form).

Response to Carrie re 1.2 (Charlene Spretnak)

On dualism, Carrie asks whether the Western mind, by “telling ourselves that it’s the concept or meaning that matters — that we must search for the ‘idea’ in the moment of engaging with art — staved off or contained the affective powers of art.” Yes, the need for rationalist concepts to override affect is an insecure, defensive response that has been present since Plato warned that emotions “pollute” the rational capabilities of the [male] Greek citizen. Finally, the role of affect in perception and cognition is coming to be recognized as a key element in conscious thought, which is often a reaction to an instantaneous flash, often unconscious, of a feeling of attraction/like or revulsion/don’t like. The emergence of modern socialization taught boys to deny emotions in order to be rational thinkers. (Women were considered hopeless on this since we seem to experience feelings as carrying truth and revealing insights.) Modern, humanist education also instilled an anthropocentric disjunction from nature. Renaissance humanists were quite taken, for instance, with the esoteric teaching supposedly conveyed by Hermes Trismegistus that the true role of [male] humans is to become as terrestrial gods on Earth, with nature as the raw materials for human use.

Jon Sakata said…

Response to Carrie, Taney, Charlene (Jon Sakata):

In resonance with both of your responses to Carrie’s, hearing Bacon’s words about his desire to get sensation on to the nervous system as violently as possible; without being slowed down by the storytelling/narrative function. Might there be something akin to this in how concepts and meaning slow and filter (out) the potency and ‘the power of what is *present*’?

Taney Roniger said…

Jon, just reflecting on my own experience, I would say that that is exactly what concepts and "meaning" do, not just in art but in any encounter with the unfamiliar: they effect a cool distancing from the immediacy of the real, which, unnamed and unconceptualized, might otherwise overwhelm me -- certainly emotionally, but also perhaps *physically*. It interests me so much that you're coming at this from the sphere of music, which would seem to me the most immediate and most physically intimate of the arts, and thus the most impervious to this kind of distancing conceptualization. You seem to be getting at this in your previous post, but I wonder if you would say a bit more about how this rationalist/humanist imperative that's so taken over the visual arts has manifested itself in your field. (And yes, to answer a question you posed in that previous post, it is most curious indeed that the very composers we tend to valorize as the greatest "humanizers" are in fact the ones who've taken us furthest *beyond* ourselves.)

Carrie Rohman said…

Yes, Liz Grosz beautifully elaborates Deleuze's and Darwin's ideas, and often talks about music and dance in such affective registers, as being the most "infectious" or contagious of the arts. Add in what I might call the enhanced powers of vibratory presence, in those forms, and it does explain in some ways why music and dance are the forms where perhaps one "becomes other," "gets lost" in the mystic experience, a bit more readily. The cool distancing is harder to maintain, I find, when watching a powerful performance or dance work, or witnessing live musical performance. And it would be worth positing that the immediacy of the real is both what we seek (as performers and observers) but also what can be threatening or frightening about art (or at least Zizek would want to insist on the terrors of the real!).

Taney Roniger said…

Indeed, Carrie. I've been thinking about what you said about fear of art's power being the underlying (and likely unconscious) force behind the low valuation of form. Charlene also pointed to this, calling it "an insecure, defensive response" that's been with us since Plato. While this seems absolutely right to me intellectually, I've been struggling to apply it to particular instances in the art world. Because as I suggested above, people's dismissal of form as empty and secondary at best (there for no other reason than to deliver the "content") seems to exude none of the uneasiness you would expect from denial. It is usually issued with all the force of certainty, as if it were a given that we needn't ever question. But I suppose this is the nature of this kind of thing: the emotional complexes that give rise to a certain response get crystalized as the response settles into the cultural imagination, leaving just this response, manifesting as a given, so that everyone is spared the original feeling.

Response to 1:1- On Humanism, Descartes' Dictum, and the Sad State of Art (Daniel Hill)

We humans do seem to be unique in that we are among the few lifeforms on this planet that make tools. Yet our tools have the power to decimate life on the entire planet, whether slowly through environmental devastation and climate change, or quickly with thermonuclear war. As such, we can almost be forgiven for being so self-centered. Crows and octopuses are remarkably intelligent, but they aren’t competing with us for fossil fuels or launching ballistic missiles or cyber-attacks on our governments. That would get our attention!

I have always considered myself to be a humanist. It is an intuitive thought really- how could one not be a humanist? Afterall, we all are human. My intuitive definition has been one of believing that all humans are inherently equal. This viewpoint is necessarily from within the human sphere and revolves around compassion for the human condition and our fellow humans. Without this, we would fail as a species. In terms of survival, this is another possible reason why we are so self-absorbed as a species. However, we have developed an unsustainable arrogance stemming from the notion of humanity being apart from the natural world.


I am inclined to see Descartes' dictum and the inferences commonly associated with it as the main culprit in Western thinking for this binary mind vs body and human vs nature perspective. It is quite combative as well- why must there be a versus at all? Both our separateness from nature and our combative streak is likely tied to our inherited tendency for tribalism. Since Descartes' dictum coincided with the great paradigm shift of the scientific enlightenment, which Steven Pinker has demonstrated so thoroughly is indeed working well for most humans, the inference of the separateness of mind and body became almost an unimpeachable truth by association.


“Science advances by the way of funerals,” to paraphrase Max Planck, and so it is true for all human advances. Several centuries on, we now are slowly realizing we are a part of the natural world, not outside, not separate. But the current power structures in place have much momentum and must diminish for true change to occur. The art world was no match for combat (since there must be a versus) with the powerful capitalist system that came to rise since the industrial revolution. Instead of being a counterbalance, a critic, it quickly fell under its sway and became synonymous. Sadly, art has now become largely irrelevant and meaningless to the majority of human beings. That art became the trophy of capitalism meant that the market would establish the fashions of aesthetics, which really means few are actually looking at the art. Hence form lost meaning in a way that can be identified by any human being, not just those accepted into the club. The way back will take place as artists recognize they are holding the keys to the main commodity of the future: meaning.


Taney Roniger said…

Daniel, you mention the agonistic nature of the dualistic mindset ("why must there be a versus at all?"). This is something Gregory Bateson talked about quite a bit. There's a wonderful essay of his on the cybernetics of alcoholism, believe it or not, that makes it all so clear: a person who sees himself as separate from the world *needs* a steady stream of real or imagined "others," even when the divisive othering puts him at war with himself. (A much-recommended essay for what it says about the Western mind!) I'm tempted to ask why this idea of the separate self arose in the first place -- i.e., what were the conditions in 5th C. BCE Greece, which seems to be where it originated. But that might lead us astray. I guess the question is what we can do about it now, now that it's so deeply ingrained in the Western psyche.

As for your last point about "meaning": I must say that the word seems dangerous to me right now where art is concerned. The reason is that it seems to have become synonymous with concept, message, narrative, etc. -- in short, with all the *discursive* meaning-making and meaning-talking that has pushed form to the wayside. Can we think of another word for the kind of meaning I think you mean, which is to say the non-discursive, deeply bodily, inarticulable kind? (But perhaps you should spell out what you mean by meaning!)

Deborah Barlow said…

Daniel, you wrote, “The way back will take place as artists recognize they are holding the keys to the main commodity of the future: meaning.”

I would phrase that differently. From my view, the main commodity of the future is the ability to emphatically embrace not knowing.

The humanism we are discussing is closely tied to knowledge, sense-making, meaning. I am more interested in what shows up in the absence of those formalizations.

In speaking about her father, Gregory Bateson, Nora Bateson expressed a similar idea:

“My father used to say, ‘The new comes out of the random.’ Mutual learning happens in the entropy; we need the confusion to release the new. This dance exists everywhere in nature. It is the swarm of confusion that becomes the grace of the way things come together. The individual paradoxically is both erased and brought to another kind of existence in noticing her participation in a larger context. In the space between the instrument, the musician, the notes, the audience, and silence, the song arrives. It is not in the instrument, nor is it in the musician, nor in the silence. The notes on the page are a map, not a territory. New meanings, new levels of understanding, come pouring into combinations born of our eagerness for contact.”

To take the philosophical position that we are essentially adrift in an inexplicable and ineffable state is usually dismissed as facile, lazy and unproductive. There is little respect for mystery as a meaningful part of our lives. And for all the embracing of the other that is evident right now, there still isn’t really a place at the table for the mystic.

It is a hard vision to defend and describe in any logical manner. But for many of us (including many artist friends) that’s the place where we keep finding ourselves. “The swarm of confusion that becomes the grace of the way things come together.” That experience can be inclusive or exclusive, small as well as large. But that is an experience I know something about.

Taney Roniger said…

"The humanism we are discussing is closely tied to knowledge, sense-making, meaning. I am more interested in what shows up in the absence of those formalizations." - *Yes* to this, Deborah. But surely there is a kind of meaning that resides in, or rather arises from, mystery (in fact you said as much, albeit indirectly). It seems to me that this is the kind of meaning that fills us with its presence whenever we adopt an attitude of humility toward the world. The feeling of being immersed in mystery -- of knowing that we do not know -- and of knowing that this mystery is so much larger than we are cannot but lead to humility. And living in that sense of right proportion seems to me the most meaningful thing we can do.

PS to Deborah: Would you consider posting your comment to Daniel as a new post? I say this because I'm afraid the comments are going to be overlooked, being tucked up under the posts like they are in small type.

Deborah Barlow said…

Of course!

Charlene Spretnak said...

Daniel’s defense of humanism is a lot more pleasant to read than Steven Pinker’s relentless cheerleading for mechanistic science. I think, though, that arrogance is not the only problem with the perception in the modern Western mind that we are physically apart from and other than the rest of the natural world. The problem is that modernity has misunderstood so much of what is really going on in the physical world. In its quest to understand the physical world, science – and society – struggled through a 300-year lost weekend, limited by humanist, mechanistic blinders. As Carolyn Merchant’s classic study The Death of Nature makes clear, the “new mechanical philosophy,” as the mechanistic worldview was originally called in the Scientific Revolution, was not the only candidate in the air as the medieval worldview was receding and becoming outweighed by what would come next. Other orientations preserved some of the premodern sense of the potent interrelatedness among all physical matter. Instead, we got the notion of a clockwork universe and the biomechanical model of the body. The field of physics began to self-correct from the mechanistic worldview more than a hundred years ago. Yet even after postmechanistic developments in science such as complexity studies and chaos theory in the 1980s and beyond, human biology, that is, physiology, was slow to slough off the biomechanistic model – until the 21st century. During the past twenty years, thousands of discoveries of dynamic interrelatedness have been made regarding the human organism (and its embeddedness in the dynamics of nature) that utterly pull the rug out from under the long-standing mechanistic assumptions about how we are structured and how we function. It will be fascinating to see how art will engage with this sea change in our understanding. The concept of the supposedly entirely “Autonomous Individual” of Enlightenment thought is more accurately understood as the human-in-relationship.

Response to Carrie's post on dualism (Jon Sakata)

I wish to tango further with Carrie's wonderful post concerning the (dancer's) body, control and staving off the affective powers of art, Deleuze and (his) expanded notion of 'bodily' experience:

"[I]t is no longer the sound which refers to a landscape, but music develops a sonorous landscape which is internal to it: it was Liszt who set upon this idea of the sonorous landscape, with such an ambiguity that we no longer know if sound refers to an associated landscape or if, on the contrary, a landscape is so interiorized within sound that it [landscape] exists only in it [sound]." - Deleuze, IRCAM lecture

As performer and listener, to not only venture, immerse, terrain such an ambiguous 'landscape' but to pleasure in becoming lost within it. As I sit at the piano to sound and lose coordinates (of self?) in such landscapes this entails making music's materiality - air - take on the affective and non-sonorous natures of felt temperature, humidity, currents and courses of energies, winds, flows, oxygen-full and oxygen-lacking states of an environment beyond pictorial depiction (representation) toward an irretrievable placeness now only of the audible.

Echoing Klee's creative impossibility: "to render visible forces that are not themselves visible" arrows to render audible forces that are not themselves audible...In textbooks, Liszt is credited with a new musical 'form': the transformation of themes (a theme or themes is/are constantly varied or transformed--melodically, rhythmically, coloristically, affectively, etc.--from section to section so that the entire work takes on a vast range of variety and coherence). Problematic is that his compositional innovation remains confined to the analytic of 'notes,' harmonic structures, orchestration, form as process, to be sure; but the 'impossibilities' of rendering audible the inaudible forces of non-human natures is rarely countenanced, let alone potently realized. Becoming-others in Liszt--including unsettling transformations of 'human'--continues to trouble a field of dissemination hung-up on the primacy of 'form' heavy on conceptualization, realized idea, score-based formalism and formatting.


A couple decades ago, 'air' as primary materiality took on new fascination and problem for me after reading Klossowski's The Baphomet - with this novel's (e)strange(d) characters being a series of 'breaths' (how enthralling to imagine the perplexing 'breath-characters' in various states of bodily-becoming, transmogrification and blasphemous acts): Can one give 'air' flesh? What does it mean to give 'form' to air-become-flesh?


Is there an analog in the visual arts to what I feel is a fundamental misapplication in musical discourse (particularly around Euro-American "classical" music) in which the very musics that are valorized, beloved as representations of "humanity" -- such distinctly different composers as Hildegard, J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms come to mind -- are precisely those that de-centered the 'human' and/or fundamentally situated the 'human' within other registers of cosmic/planetary existence? The way Brahms carried within him (and harnessed/unleashed) from his Op. 1 to his decades in Vienna, the forces and energies of the sea, a becoming-maritime/becoming-nautical that twins Melville: what is 'human' in Brahms--from deepest emotional churns, epic calls and fanfares, to most tender whispers and nostalgic wafts of warmth and longing--seems to me in arc and horizon not the work of the composer popularly dubbed the reactionary, retrograde "Romantic Classicist" (struggling to come to terms with the 'traditional forms' of his forbearers); but rigorously explored and multiplicary expressions from a composer who was enmeshed with the forces of Nature like few others.

Deborah Barlow said…

Thank you for making room for the rhapsodic. (As is your nature.) Thank you Jon

Jon Sakata said…

Hi there Deborah—

And thanks for your opening the door and window and roof to confusion and the unknown! Here’s to a dialogic furthering over the course of these days and beyond!

Deborah Barlow said...

One more thought on your words Jon, in the spirit of,“The object is to make the dancer dance.” From a review of Sky Hopinka last month in the New York Times:

Taney Roniger said…

Re: "Can one give air flesh?" What a beautiful question, Jon. David Abram, who will be our final speaker here next weekend, writes a lot about air as a material presence. It's one we take so for granted because we can't see it, but it is, as David reminds us, part of the flesh of the earth. (As he has said somewhere, we don't live *on* the earth, we live *in* it -- literally immersed in, and constantly ingesting, Earth's outermost layer.)

On Misapplications of Discourse: Response to Jon Sakata (Taney Roniger)

In an earlier post, Jon Sakata asks: "Is there an analog in the visual arts to what I feel is a fundamental misapplication in musical discourse (particularly around Euro-American "classical" music) in which the very musics that are valorized, beloved as representations of "humanity" -- such distinctly different composers as Hildegard, J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms come to mind -- are precisely those that de-centered the 'human' and/or fundamentally situated the 'human' within other registers of cosmic/planetary existence?"

In considering how humanism has inflected our inherited assumptions about art, this strikes me as a particularly generative question. Have there been similar misreadings or misprisions in the visual arts that would suggest such a discrepancy between actual art and the discourse surrounding it? And perhaps Jon could say more about the influence of humanist assumptions on the field of music as a whole?

1.1: Response to Deborah (Daniel Hill)

Deborah, re: “I would phrase that differently. From my view, the main commodity of the future is the ability to emphatically embrace not knowing. The humanism we are discussing is closely tied to knowledge, sense-making, meaning. I am more interested in what shows up in the absence of those formalizations.”

Agreed, if this wasn’t a conversational type of writing, I would put my previous entry through a few more edits! But the format we are using for this symposium has the flavor of a live talk, where sometimes one wishes to go back and edit how one said something! Anyway, if I were to rephrase this particular sentence, I think I would likely address the word meaning (as Taney astutely points out) and not omit it. It is a vague word for our needs. Necessity calls for another!

The type of meaning I am referring to is tacit, unable to be told using explicit means (written and spoken word), non-discursive, embodied, and simultaneously- subjective and personal. This type of meaning is what I think all humans yearn for. It is the type of meaning yielded from a life immersed in creative practices, like art. The notion of meaning as the commodity of the future is one shared by Yuval Noah Harari who summarizes the power of this type of meaning when he says: "A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship. Whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is." We all have seen examples of individuals who have lived in accord to the system in every way and have succeeded in doing all the “right” things- but still, something is lacking- something significant. No amount of money or power will ever deliver it. Harari has also referred to the rise of the "useless class" in the 21st century- those with no options for a well-paid career due to those careers being taken by machine learning and artificial intelligence. This, in turn, will force an economic reform. Whatever that reform may be, the precious commodities of today- namely, money- will lose value/interest and give rise to the commodity of meaning (again, for the lack of more appropriate word). This personal, subjective meaning is one artists know well. A commodity of not knowing: if that means unlearning tendencies that have outlived their usefulness, I could go along with that. (I can think of a couple ripe candidates!)

I am interested too in what shows up in the absence or formalizations such as sense-making, but not really sure what that would be. I think we humans are built to find patterns and make sense of them. We are striving to make sense constantly- right now! - it is what we do. Making sense is imperative to acquiring this type of meaning I refer to. As an artist I would be afraid to lose these formalizations for they are tools, and the absence of sense may easily be construed as nonsense. This beckons of that horrible saying I used to hear in art school-“dumb as a painter”. Artists can be just as intelligent and conceptual as the scientist. But I think it is important that artists are taken seriously moving deeper in the 21st century. That means reckoning with the juggernaut called science.

Science, (the objective), must be acknowledged. No one can deny the success of science as a tool for problem solving. Art must exercise great care moving forward if it wants to restore relevancy, as it is already marginalized. If art can communicate with science, if science can have a foothold, however slight, into the subjective realm of art, we inch toward the notion EO Wilson has termed consilience. (Consilience means literally “a jumping together” and refers to a unification of currently disparate fields of human knowledge- the arts, humanities, sciences, etc.) This foothold is akin to the leading edge of a tree’s root, thin and wispy, sliding into cracks of the stone, and yet over time growing and splitting the matrix. This stone is the subjective realm of the unknown, that which currently eludes science.

Re: Bateson: I think what is being referred to in this wonderful quote is just this sense-making, the finding of this “pattern that connects” that Bateson has referred to and which in turn leads to this type of meaning. Notably, a symmetry is found here between objective and subjective equivalents- an inward meaning reflected in an outward meaning and vice versa: a unification of the opposites.

 Re: mystic: This is a word I struggle with as it carries much baggage. The lure of the unknown- this fiery, passionate desire to understand that has driven us through the millennia holds a sense of mystery implicit. This is essential. I agree with you and yes, it is a difficult position to defend. Both (word and position) need to be expressed in a way that science can understand or contribute. Otherwise, it is too easily dismissed. However, I think we live at a fortunate time as interesting things are happening in neuroscience and consciousness studies for example. The near future may yield common ground atop which we may build.

Taney Roniger said…

Daniel, there's so much in your post that calls for response, but for now I'd like to push a bit further into one aspect, which is your characterization of art as trafficking in the subjective while science, on the other end of the spectrum, deals in the objective. For me, one of the most significant objectives in moving beyond humanism is to redefine what we mean by both terms, or to learn to inhabit a space somewhere between the two. In her new book, our fellow panelist Jane Bennett explores a new model of subjectivity in which the self is experienced as a porous being in constant dynamic interchange with the nonhuman forces that surround it. Acutely attentive and open to the world, this self lets itself be acted upon, influenced by, the material conditions and affective states of the things it encounters, in turn acting upon and influencing them as it "exhales" what is taken in. Because of its outward orientation (its being "dilated" to the world), and because it takes into itself that which it is not (i.e., nonhuman forces), there are aspects of this subjectivity that are distinctly apersonal and "objective." I find this a wonderfully compelling model for a new kind of subjectivity - one that dovetails precisely with my aspirations for art. Can we envision a model for art that is similarly apersonal? And might this be a way for art and science to meet in the middle, as it were? In any case, I highly recommend reading the book; I think it will make you reconsider many things that are taken for granted. (It's called Influx and Efflux, published by Duke University Press.)

Daniel Hill said…

Taney that sounds fascinating and is also in line with what I have tried to envision for a beginning of consilience: a way to parse out that gray territory just a little. Indeed this is the impetus for my own work. I wonder if this new model of subjectivity, state you/she describes is one artists are acquainted. "Acutely attentive and open to the world, this self lets itself be acted upon, influenced by, the material conditions and affective states of the things it encounters, in turn acting upon and influencing them as it "exhales" what is taken in." This sounds familiar, like a sense of awe before some spectacle of nature and the spark of inspiration. I am curious to hear more. I ordered the book-

Taney Roniger said…

Thanks so much for your comment, Anonymous (forgive me, but I see no name here!). Yes indeed to your question about artists' familiarity with the kind of subjectivity Jane Bennett describes. In fact, Bennett begins her book by talking about her practice of doodling - the kind of thing you do while on the phone -- and how she noticed the peculiar sense of self that emerges when she's doing it. As an artist whose main practice is drawing, I can absolutely relate: there's something inarticulably special about the activity of drawing and the kind of thinking it gives rise to. (I would argue the same is the case with writing by hand, that beautiful and sacred practice now on its way to oblivion.) The central figure in the book is Walt Whitman, who Bennett sees as exemplary of this style of being a self (which makes perfect sense when you think of his acutely observant and ecstatic poetry). I think you'll really enjoy the book. Perhaps you'd like to say more about how this alternate subjectivity relates to your work?

Deborah Barlow said…

Thank you for your clarifications Daniel. And like others who have commented here, I found many new questions to be considered in this post.

As we move into the questions in Session 2, I am looking forward to probing more deeply into the connection/relationship/opportunity you see for science and art, art and science. And with several symposium participants who can be described as “artist/scientists”—or “scientist/artists,”--there is much more to be said.

And if there is time, would a more expanded explanation of this passage be possible?

“Science, (the objective), must be acknowledged. No one can deny the success of science as a tool for problem solving. Art must exercise great care moving forward if it wants to restore relevancy, as it is already marginalized.”

Daniel Hill said…

With this line, I am taking the "big picture" perspective. Arts and Humanities departments in universities across the country were having serious difficulties prior to the pandemic- now the red lights are flashing. And in grade school/middle school/High school level art is the first to be cut. Indeed my own son- the son of two devoted artists, did not have a proper art class until he was 10 or something. My point here is that to find some common ground with science would bring interest and funding toward a reappraisal of art education. If we want to know where things are going, we can look where we have been, and with art education, this is not a good sign. If art education fails us further, and no one cares about art, knows how to look at, think about art, how to value art beyond the market, where does this leave art in 10-20-50 years. I shudder to think. Science and technology are poised to explode exponentially in this century. Art has to fight for relevance- fight for its place at the table. It is sad and I wish it wasn't true, but all signs point to it being so.

Daniel Hill said…

Taney- "Can we envision a model for art that is similarly apersonal?" Employing an encoded system can do just this. I am now working on a set of cards divided into six categories (composition, interaction, process, title, etc, with a range of instructions from the specific to the vague. The cards are then pulled at random as I work on a piece. The system I had in place already had me feeling like a bystander to my own work- outside of it- and observing a process that exists independent of me. The cards are now upping the ante so to speak. Are the paintings/drawing apersonal? Not completely, but they is more of a balance between the personal and apersonal. Wish I could just jam that book into my head right now, just don't have time to read it before this wonderful conference ends!

On being "unique," on tools, on the question of "Only humans do X" (Carrie Rohman)

This is just a short, general note about our tendency as a species to be focused on how we are different or unique (usually called "human exceptionalism," these days), rather than being focused on how we are similar to other creatures or lifeforms or material forces.  And of course, my larger question is always, why are we so desperate to reinforce a precise difference between ourselves and other actors?  We do seem actually desperate to keep drawing a line, even as "science" erases it (in ways that former indigenous knowledges had already done, but we tend to only believe "science" nowadays).  There are many answers to why we evince this desperation, of course, but I won't go into those for the sake of space.


We used to say that "of course" animals couldn't use tools, and certainly couldn't make or modify tools.  But now we know otherwise.  The fact is, many many nonhuman creatures use tools and modify tools, to varying degrees.  They don't build rocket ships.  But if we believe Darwin, then every human "capacity" is just a differentiated form of other capacities that came before.  Why are we so fixated on our "uniqueness" in general, when we could be focused on our shared capacities, vulnerabilities, affects, passions, and yes, aesthetic becomings (this latter is what I've addressed in work on "bioaesthetics")?  Human exceptionalism seems not an inevitable posture, but rather an ideological one having to do (as other folks here have mentioned) with hierarchies, discourses of power, etc. that have become so entrenched we can't even see them anymore.  So for me, that is one part of "humanism" that I believe needs to go.  And because it is such a central and enduring tenet of post-Enlightenment humanism (we could go down the road with Kant and Descartes and the like) it's hard for me to imagine wanting to hold on to that philosophical position.  I'd much rather shift from some idea of human equality as a central "truth," to one that includes that as a given, because the living in general come to be more highly valued.  We will always have a "natural" tendency to put ourselves first, but it doesn't mean we should accept that tendency as ethically sound.  These are not new ideas, but it seems worth reiterating them, in relation to some of the threads in Session 1.


Whose Master Narrative? (Stephanie Grilli)

As originally conceived, “humanism” wasn’t about what separated us from other animals or the natural world but about finding truth within the limits of possible experience. The term as applied to cultural history didn’t emerge until the early nineteenth-century, when thinkers had jettisoned religious constructions for secular explanations of what could be known. If we look to the emergence of humanism in the chronicles of art history starting with Vasari, it is Giotto who introduces the information of the eye and human drama into representations of the sacred. While ancient texts were known through the medieval period, they began to speak to people once again when God was no longer transcendent or divine but immanent in the material world.

The first glimmer of the birth of humanism is Giotto’s cycle of frescoes of the life of Saint Francis in Assisi painted a century after his death. Among the paintings is “Saint Francis Preaching to the Birds” (c. 1299), which depicts one of the stories told by Thomas of Celano about Francis’ belief that God’s house is all of creation. What I’m proposing is that the humanist turn may not be singular or implicitly a matter of man’s dominion over nature. The question to ask is: who is writing our narratives?

The one in which “man is the measure of all things” certainly gained favor with the first art academies in which craftsmen gained status as learned men and drawing of the human figure became the standard of mastery. Yet focusing of the things of this world and the affairs of men came with a championing of the senses. John Locke put forth the idea that we are the product of experience in which the senses are the vehicle for that act of self-creation. Art-making becomes increasingly grounded in sensory experience wherein naturalism chips away at received knowledge, and emotion in response to nature starts to challenge Academic fare. The rise of abstraction or form over content takes place when the perceiving subject portrays what is apprehended rather than only what is observed. In Abstraction and Empathy published in 1907, Wilhelm Worringer wrote, “The value of a line, of a form consists for us in the value of the life that it holds for us. It holds its beauty only through our own vital feeling, which, in some mysterious manner, we project into it.”

It is but a blink of an eye before Jackson Pollock will assert “I am nature.” Of course for Clement Greenberg, Pollock was Jackson the Giant Killer, the ultimate exponent of the flat canvas or painting as pure painting. With this narrative locked in place, the act of painting as surrender became instead the triumph of the artificial over the natural — one man boldly going where no man had gone before. Sapped of meaning other than itself, form becomes a shibboleth, teed up to be the supreme manifestation of toxic masculinity and Western anthro-purity.

Response to 1.6: On preserving aspects of humanism (Arthur Whitman)

I emphatically share the skepticism expressed by other panelists here regarding the Cartesian and other related dualisms. And yes, certainly, the notion of human selves as radically autonomous and primarily rational is one that I think has seen better days. We are embodied, embedded creatures and our capacities for abstract and deliberative thought are rooted in those for perception and affect. So if that's what "humanism" is, please sign me up as one of its enemies.

That said--and at the risk of appearing unfashionable--I think it's worth holding on to some idea of a distinctive human nature, that is, of some form of "uniqueness." All species are unique to some extent and I think that it's best to see our similarities and differences vis a vis other animals as two sides of the same coin.

It's certainly true that other animal species have tools and artifacts and can be thought of as engaging in aesthetic or even artistic activity. I would venture that there's something meaningfully distinctive about the complexity and potential range of human symbolic culture. For better and/or for worse, we have the capacity to extend our cognitive and practical abilities in continuously novel and cumulative ways--something other creatures don't seem to do. I think it is important to reckon with that and if accusations like "human exceptionalism" get thrown around too casually, they may not help with this needed reckoning.

Knowing and Not-Knowing (Werner Sun)

Thanks to everyone for all the thought-provoking posts. There is so much to follow up on here, but one thread has been the connection between humanism and knowledge. As someone with a scientific background, I find the topic of sense-making to be endlessly fascinating, and I tend to see scientific knowledge as dynamic and provisional, even though it is often more convenient to present it as a collection of fixed truths. The practice of science is like the practice of art, in that outcomes are not preordained, and artists/scientists spend more time in a state of not-knowing than in certainty.

I'm interested in the "phenomenology" of knowing, and from this perspective, the mind/body duality falls away because I believe we all experience cognition as a physical activity. (And for this reason, it is hubris to claim that it's unique to humans, as Carrie points out.) Indeed, if I haven't slept well, my thoughts are slow as mud. When I'm struggling to solve a problem (technical or not), I am acutely aware of the bits of information I'm shuffling around. I can close my eyes and see them as puzzle pieces, and when I finally fit them together into a bigger picture, there is a shiver of understanding that registers as a bodily sensation. It's the same way that a complex piece of music like a 4-part Bach fugue can transcend its individual components and stir the emotions.

I've also found that when such understandings are revealed, I habitually tend to assume that the map is the territory, that these now-apparent (Platonic) truths were somehow hidden within the objects under study all along. This common perception of "embedded meanings" leads to a narrative of form/content duality that can be found in science as much as in art (with scientific laws being the content of natural forms). Furthermore, this duality implies an opposition between our questioning minds and their subjects. Thus, seeking knowledge can have an alienating effect -- in order to understand how something works, we have to objectify it, to regard it as separate from ourselves.

However, there is an alternative. As Deborah suggests, we could posit that there is no duality, that the form of an object simply is, that it carries no inherent meaning, that we can look at an object without seeking to know it. But if we do choose to reach for knowledge, we can view that "content" as intrinsic to us viewers, not to the object itself, thereby preserving the object's integrity.

In other words, sense-making is a conscious act. Science proceeds under the assumption that all phenomena can be explained rationally, that nature is knowable even if it is not currently fully known. This does not mean, however, that scientists are constantly being scientific. When I gaze at the night sky, I find myself flitting back and forth between two modes of looking: zooming in to pick out individual stars and constellations, and zooming out to take in the entire sky with wonder. Both of these approaches -- the analytic and the holistic -- can co-exist without contradiction, enriching each other.

Taney Roniger said…

Werner, there's so much in your post that begs further exploration, but I want to pick up on just two bits here. The first is your point about cognition being a physical activity. Yes indeed, and I love the way you describe how you experience thought. It reminds me of Einstein's claim that he thought kinesthetically, or intra-muscularly, which I certainly relate to (writing for me is profoundly physical). The second thing I want to draw attention to is your very interesting point about the form/content dualism in science. This is something I've never thought about, but of course it makes perfect sense. I think the problem is essentially a misapplication of metaphor (in the Lakoffian sense of conceptual metaphor). If we think of form as a container -- a vessel, say, or any type of enclosure -- then this naturally leads to the idea that it is to be *filled*, that it itself only exists to hold whatever gets placed inside it. When I say I want a glass of wine, for example, I'm not thinking of the glass at all; all I care about is the silky Cabernet inside it! So what if we were to reconceptualize form not as something hollow that is to be filled but as something with no "inside" whatsoever: it's all one solid thing, outside and inside in one. If we could do this somehow, change our conceptual metaphor, then talking about the "content" of a form would make no more sense than looking for the wine inside the molecular makeup of the glass. (Not to get carried away, but perhaps a better way to think of it would be to imagine a solid chunk of frozen wine. Who would take it out of the freezer, lift it to her lips, and just before biting off a delicious sliver stop and declare: but this is just a form -- where's my goddamned content?)

Werner Sun said…

Thanks, Taney! Yes, that's an excellent way of describing what I meant by a holistic approach, one that does not see a form as something to be decoded or interpreted to get at the content inside, but simply appreciated as is. Incidentally, I wonder why we tend to think of form as a container in the first place. Perhaps it's a natural by-product of the struggle involved in cognition. The fact that understanding is not immediate, that it takes an investment of time and effort, gives the impression that the surface appearance of an object/phenomenon/form hides its true nature underneath. And so, it's possible that our self-centered minds, eager to see supernatural agency and conspiracy where none exists, find it easier to attribute the form's opacity to the form itself, rather than to our own unavoidable limitations.

Response to 1.1 about humanism (Charlene Spretnak)

The point has been made that Renaissance humanism was not primarily about establishing the notion that humans are separate from nature. Very true. That was accomplished much earlier when the holistic Pre-Socratic philosophers were sidelined in favor of Socrates’ turn to focusing on the rational capabilities of the [male] human mind. Since this is our last evening on humanism, I’d like to add that the main impetus in Florence, and then elsewhere, for the emergence of Renaissance humanism (which should be understood not merely as “the rebirth of learning” but a rebirth of classical learning, which had already made its break from nature) was to create a safe space in which to establish, and then increase, distance from the overarching power in the late medieval world of Church and king. The Renaissance humanists and their patrons stepped around the Church by looking back at Western history. They pointed out that Greek and Roman philosophical works, as well as various esoteric traditions, were the oldest roots of Western culture so, therefore, were worthy of one’s interest – even as one remained Christian and avoided being burned at the stake for heresy. What was particularly engaging to the Florentines then were texts proclaiming the exultation of man, a stark contrast with the medieval sense that man’s sinful nature might well result in eternal damnation.

The embrace of the neoclassical orientation was also expressed in the emergence of neoclassical architecture and in painting. One example is the way depictions of the Virgin Mary were coded such that, once the perspective of Renaissance humanism became dominant, she is never again presented as the Queen of Heaven on a throne; instead, she is usually given only a thin halo and is seated on neoclassical bench or large chair. The political message was clear that the wealthy patrons, as well as the painters, were no longer living in a culture controlled by the power of the Church. They had made their break. Back to the point at the beginning of this posting, many well-to-do humanist “gentlemen scientists” in the 17th and 18th centuries pursued their own studies of nature, often creating extensive collections – but they, of course, did so with the Western perspective of man’s ontological separation from nature.

 Both neoclassical architecture and the study of science as if humans were objectively detached observers, rather than embodied, embedded Earthlings, dominated the emergent modern culture and beyond. Yet soon after the modern worldview coalesced in the second half of the 18th century, this entire complex of premises and assumptions were challenged when the Romantic philosophers and poets mounted their Grand Correction, insisting on our inherent embedded in the natural world. Goethe, for instance, found Newton’s mechanistic explication of light and color via the prism to be inadequate because a full study of this subject must incorporate the way we feel and bodily experience the perception of light and colors. While a 21st-century posthumanist turn will not replicate earlier efforts, the Romantic rebellion against mechanistic premises and assumptions provides deep roots from which to draw inspiration.

A Response to Taney concerning Misapplications of Discourse (Jon Sakata)

Taking up Taney's invitation to further amplify on my previous 'misapplications of discourse' in music post, as well as to bring in polyphonic assemblage some other thoughts concerning other open posts/threads of Session I…

The disastrous inheritance of the Nature/Culture division has clearly been written about with great critical insight by a number of authors (including some on this symposium panel). I wonder if music's tabling within the Culture taxonomy has been a cause for why certain composers -- who clearly had deep connectivity with the non-human, and who drew not just 'inspiration' (cliche) but were profoundly immersed in its phenomena, forces, energies, vital signs and sources -- have been talked about and lensed the way they have been, reductively and grossly, as (only) paragons of humanism and human-cultural-civilizational achievement?


When Charlene points out that "[o]ther orientations preserved some of the premodern sense of the potent interrelatedness among all physical matter," I think of Hildegard von Bingen's astonishing vocal chants in which immense melodic gestures and contours (some ranging over two octaves as her contemporaries remained contained to within an octave), streams and beams of light made audible -- complexified through a completely novel "networked system of musical modes" (Michael Gardiner) -- give ear, earth, sky to her well-known attunement with the mineral world and supposedly keen observations of how light interacted with crystalline forms of minerals. But what is more, I feel it is important to steer away from the personality cult of "Hildegard" as individual genius; and rather, to focus in on the non-personal power (Deleuze) that coursed through this remarkable prismatic assemblage: Hildegard-mineral-crystal-light-sound.


Accumulating snowfall 'mood' music playing in the background, but now coming to my foreground of perception: there's Schubert's Winterreise on. Perfect coincidence. Something rarely recognized by musicians and musicologists about Lieder, but described by Deleuze in the L'Abécédaire interviews, is the fundamental tie between certain composers (e.g., Schubert and Schumann) and this genre of song with 'the Land.' There is an ongoing 'force of contact' (to echo Rauschenberg) and non-personal power that streams through Earth, the (human) wanderer, poet and composer. What is typically described as the 'deeply human' emotions and poetics of these songs, misses (in the case of the Schubert cycle in my ears), however partial, a peculiar hyper-sensitivity to, identification with, and intoning of the non-human. A single leaf barely hanging on the linden tree before it spirals to oblivion...  Some may argue that this is anthropomorphism, par excellence; I would counter that what Schubert (or rather, what happens through Schubert) is the kind of mysterious mediation and transformation of voice and piano, the becoming-rustling winter wind and fragility of parched vegetation made sonic, that could only happen because of someone/something/somewhere leaving behind the purely 'human-cultural-civilizational' fold to venture a posthuman ethos well before any such terminology existed…

Deborah Barlow said…

Jon, I don't want these meditations/explorations/expansions to end. Please, just keep going!

I am still relishing your "prismatic assemblage: Hildegard-mineral-crystal-light-sound."

Fremd bin ich eingezogen,

Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus.

So it begins, a journey with no end.

Jon said…


Onwards and onwards, we (and our shadows, of course) and whatever awaits ahead...


 1.6    Aspects of humanism to preserve moving forward (Sarah Robinson)

Building on Arthur Whitman's post, the work of Alfred North Whitehead is really helpful in the question of which aspects we wish to preserve moving forward. Whitehead understood humans as implicitly embedded in the continuum of life, a term that envelops nature and culture distinctions. He was not interested in dwelling on the differences between humans and the rest of life, but very matter of factly insisted:  “It is a false dichotomy to think of Nature and Man. Mankind is a factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of Nature.”  And in fact many argue that what distinguishes humans is the way that we have used culture to radically extend and amplify our capacities. It is helpful to remember that culture is rooted in the word, "to care" and was originally used to refer to the conditions of plants--as in agriculture. In this early sense animals and even plants are cultured. Culture shapes biology and vice versa in a moebius strip of influence that cannot be teased apart. The particular symbiosis that took place in the human story of becoming formed a hybrid cognitive repertoire--books, computers, internet--an off-loaded memory system. We now know that the human brain is unexceptional in its basic design, what makes it distinctive is the cultural scaffolding which led to even greater plasticity. Merlin Donald and Michael Tomasello both argue that what started out as initially very gradual, with the invention of the first symbols, accelerated exponentially with the introduction of written artefacts, and in a ratchet-effect has altered not only how we use our biologically-inherited cognitive resources, but has altered our very biology. There is simply no turning back, nor should there be. Thinking along with Whitehead also helps with the discussion of form. Form is a verb. The container/contained model of static form filled with dead matter is deadening and obsolete, and seriously hampers any kind of richer understanding of life. The interactive shaping and symbiotic coupling with technology, that intensified our plasticity are dynamics that cannot be understood in terms of the old hylomorphic model, which is of course why we are all here to imagine another way.

Deborah Barlow said…

Your inclusivity and thoughtful insights (culture--"to care"--YES) is so rewarding.

Sometimes a response is best when languaged with a poem.

The Origin

of what happened is not in language—

of this much I am certain.

Six degrees south, six east—

and you have it: the bird

with the blue feathers, the brown bird—

same white breasts, same scaly

ankles. The waves between us—

house light and transform motion

into the harboring of sounds in language.—

Where there is newsprint

the fact of desire is turned from again—

and again. Just the sense

that what remains might well be held up—

later, as an ending.

Twice I have walked through this life—

once for nothing, once

for facts: fairy-shrimp in the vernal pool—

glassy-winged sharp-shooter

on the failing vines. Count me—

among the animals, their small

committed calls.—

Count me among

the living. My greatest desire—

to exist in a physical world.

— Jane Mead

Taney Roniger said…

Sarah, I'm wondering if you can say more about the idea of form as a verb. How does this reconceptualizing change the way we experience art objects and, in your case, architecture? Because although we now know otherwise, our limited sensory apparatus tells us that objects are static -- paintings, chairs, mountains, or whatever: to our bodyminds these things seem utterly static. We can certainly change the way we *think* about form (shall we call it forming?), but can our thinking change the way we actually experience it? I must say I adore this idea of changing nouns into verbs (David Bohm proposed something similar many years ago, using the term "the rheomode" for this new way of thinking), but I'm having trouble imagining what it would do to our actual experience of the world.

Response to Sarah’s 1.6 and thinking with Whitehead (Jon Sakata)

Whitehead’s view elsewhere that the universe is “a field of force—or, in other words, a field of incessant activity” not only undergirds Sarah’s  crucial vectorization “Form is a verb” but that, I would expand, everything is verb. Life is verb. [To tie with other conversations in Session 1 concerning ‘meaning’ and ‘sense-making’, just would add here sens in French also includes additionally ‘directionality’, this dimension of vectoring form-ing, living, creating.]

I sing Whitehead’s song concerning an undivided Nature-[Hu]Man and there is indeed so much to marvel and affirm in, as Sarah says: “...that what distinguishes humans is the way that we have used culture to radically extend and amplify our capacities.” And yet, I pause how human plasticity and our incomparable capacities have brought us — humans and non-humans — to the brink of planetary ecocide. I don’t know if Whitehead contemplated such a horizon; but (re-)affirming and (re-)activating an incessant culture of care—or even more, to incessantly create embodied (micro-)cultures of caring—feels crucial in confronting and embracing what lies Be-For(e) and With-In.


To keep from humanism-past:

- While there was the French Enlightenment; there was also the daring inflammatory counter-Enlightenment of Johann Georg Hamman (as much I feel little resonance with his polemics).

- Within the French Enlightenment, that Diderot could pen such a flight of delirium as Rameau’s Nephew.

- Who was it that posited that the opposition between reason and feeling is illusory? Rather, that reason is a special form of feeling. In other words, feeling is a continuum inclusive of reason.

Meditating on just these three—the way they each circuit a critical contingency to push back or vector ways of thinking and living otherwise while entangled in far more formidable, prevailing, dominant conditionalities—could it be that I harbor a desire to keep all of humanism-past?

What might enacting erasure of parts of humanism-past portend for an ethical posthumanism-future?

Deborah Barlow said…

"Who was it that posited that the opposition between reason and feeling is illusory? Rather, that reason is a special form of feeling. In other words, feeling is a continuum inclusive of reason."

More on this please, from anyone.

Taney Roniger said…

Jon and Deborah, Do you mean that someone from the past -- one of the Enlightenment figures, perhaps -- posited that the reason/feeling opposition is illusory? If so, I'd love to hear more on this. Of course, if you're referring to a contemporary figure that's another story altogether -- and one on which I'd have much to say!

Jon Sakata said…


Taney Roniger said…

It could well be that Hume and Deleuze made this claim - very interesting. What I had in mind were people like Antonio Damasio, George Lakoff, and Mark Johnson, all of whom have written extensively on this in recent times. What was revelatory for me when I first read Lakoff was the idea that (and he has studied this empirically -- it's not just conjecture) the entire human conceptual apparatus arises from our embodied, sensual contact with the world, and as such consists mostly, if not entirely, of metaphors involving bodily actions. (Jon is of course talking about *feeling,* or emotion, but we seem to have no problem allowing that emotions arise from our embodied being in the world. And if reason is a function of emotion, and emotion is a function of our embodiment, then what I'm saying is similar.) But then when you think about it, how could it be otherwise? Old claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it's not like reason just descended on us from some mysterious celestial source; it had to have been born of the earth, just like everything else about us. And on emotion specifically, Antonio Damasio's claim (again, proven empirically) is that not only are reason and emotion fundamentally connected, but reason is entirely *dependent* upon emotion. To think that all this time we've gotten this so wrong. Another facet of human hubris, I suppose: to assume that things we *wish* were the case are in fact the case. I love what was said earlier about affect being so much more difficult than reason -- so much more difficult to inhabit -- and that rather than owning this difficulty, we ("we") divorced ourselves from it and cast it on to women!

Deborah Barlow said…

Taney, this is compelling and full of rich veins to explore. Thank you for taking this on.

I am also hoping Sarah Robinson will weigh as well. (She did a symposium and subsequent publication on Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design.)

Taney Roniger said…

Rich indeed! I can make this a separate thread so others will be sure to see it. I do think it calls for some in-depth attention.

Jon Sakata said…

That sounds like a great idea, Taney!

Great to finally meet you and really enjoyed today's talk with Christine!

 Response to Charlene re 1.1 (Daniel Hill)

I have to admit to chuckling when reading your first sentence, for as a fan of Steven Pinker, I must admit his books are not exactly pleasant (or easy) reading! And I was not so much defending humanism as giving my instinctual definition of the word (and probably some readers') and making the distinction between a humanist in regard to within the human sphere as opposed to outside and our current human domination of the planet. Also, to clarify, I did not intend for arrogance to be read entirely as the cause of our separation from nature as much as it is the result. Certainly, it is much more complex than that, as you indicate. However, at this point our arrogance expressed through the cult of the ego and greed has widened that gap considerably.

So, this 300-year lost weekend would start around when? My first thought when reading your comment went to the early years of Christianity (although I think you mean more recent) and its control over books/knowledge (primarily classical Greece). This made me think of Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve, which suggests the re-discovery of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things in a German monastery in 1417 might have played a part in sparking the Renaissance. Whereas it is likely to be more complex than that, after reading On the Nature of Things, which lays out the philosophy of Epicurus (341–270 BC), I couldn’t help but be taken a bit with the notion. I also couldn’t help but wonder where we would be if the church had not had such a stranglehold on knowledge. On the Nature of Things struck me as quite refreshing and opposite in many ways to my own Christian upbringing.  I wonder had it, and others, not been suppressed could this mechanistic worldview have been avoided? Or did it contribute? Have you read the Greenblatt book and if so, I would love to hear your take? I am curious also about these other worldviews that were present along with the mechanistic one and will get the Carolyn Merchant book you mention. Also, you write: “The supposedly entirely “Autonomous Individual” of Enlightenment thought is actually the human-in-relationship.” By human-in-relationship do you mean a relationship with the natural world? I see you have written another post regarding Humanism which I look forward to reading next.

Charlene Spretnak said…

It is possible, of course, to trace both the constructive and the problematic results of Renaissance humanism. Regarding the latter, though, what I have in mind by the long “lost weekend” would begin when the neoclassicist, humanist enthusiasts in the mid-15th century championed the “Ancient Wisdom” of the Corpus Hermeticum for its teaching that humans and nature have different sources: humans were created by God, but nature was created by the Demiurge (at God’s direction). Talk about separation! Interestingly, other sections of that cobbled-together text present elements of ancient cosmological, nature-honoring spirituality, but those teachings were not taken up. What really carried the day were teachings about man’s destiny to become as gods on Earth. That sense of the unbounded human, freed finally from medieval virtues such as humility and caritas -- and freed from seeing nature as the Creation -- was very influential in countless ways in the post-medieval, early modern societies.

Democritus’s theory of atomism, via the writings of Epicurus and Lucretius, was brought into the neoclassical mix and delivered a new understanding of physical reality: that all entities in the cosmos are supposedly composed of unchanging, invisibly small, indivisible hard bits. This theory was accepted by Newton and Descartes in spite of the lack of any empirical evidence for these bits of matter, and the notion of atomism then informed the beginnings of modern social theory and economics – such as the idea that society is inherently atomized. What could possibly organize such random bits/people? Why, it’s the invisible Hand of the Market.

If you are interested in how four foundational movements, beginning with Renaissance humanism, contributed to the emergence of modernity, you might want to look at The Resurgence of the Real, a book I wrote. It also considers the subsequent movements that sought to correct what the modern worldview got wrong. The arts were quite important in several of those movements that challenged the mechanistic worldview and the humanist sense of living on top of nature. Yet the Western belief in the radical discontinuity between humans and nature proved to be resilient. For instance, about 20 years ago there was a smog inversion over Paris so severe that most cars were banned from the city for a few days. A journalist asked a man-on-the-street how the cumulative situation could have gotten so bad. The Parisian replied with some disdain, “We do not think about nature. We are humanists!”

Your question about the human-in-relationship will have to go into a different post a bit later.

Taney Roniger said…

I just want to second Charlene's recommendation of her book. The Resurgence of the Real is at the top of the reading list I posted here; it was certainly one of the books that inspired this conference. If you haven't already read it, Daniel, I would also recommend Charlene's States of Grace, whose assessment of the deconstructive postmodernism we both dislike I think you would very much appreciate. This book might also soften you to the word "spiritual," which I know is another thing you experience with some distaste!

Daniel Hill said…

Charlene- Thank you- how fascinating! "..neoclassicist, humanist enthusiasts in the mid-15th century championed the “Ancient Wisdom” of the Corpus Hermeticum for its teaching that humans and nature have different sources: humans were created by God, but nature was created by the Demiurge (at God’s direction)." Say what we will about the ancient Greeks, but I am continually amazed by the depth and quality of thinking that came out of classical antiquity. I am particularly interested with the so-called Ionian Enlightenment that took place in archaic Greece beginning in the 6th century BCE and is associated with thinkers like Anaximander, Aristarchus, Heraclitus and Democritus among others. Their ideas might have had flaws (some big ones!), but it appears a stunning advance in motivation and problem solving which upheld thinking over superstition. The aspect of the pre-Socratics, which I find to be of particular interest, is the quality of their thought. Thought like this is a beautiful gesture: it is open, fresh, and playful; simple, yet profound. Thought like this is not exclusionary, nor is it arbitrary, but has made use of the sublime power of our forgotten imagination. By using their intellect and imaginations in harmony, they were to discover a profound process for thinking about the world around us. As an artist I can identify with this way of thinking, as I am limited to the simple tools of my mind, my senses, and my body. Process Philosophy, which is quite interesting, also has ties to these thinkers.

I am curious about these neoclassicists that made this separation- what consequences this choice had! One would think that if these neoclassicists, if they were studying the source works, would not make such a huge blunder! Of course, they were probably reading Plato and Aristotle- admittedly not so interested in either. But was unaware that a “god/creation” theme was so prevalent here.

Truly fascinating. I just ordered your book, The Resurgence of the Real and I am very much looking forward to reading it! Thank you for this informative response.

Daniel Hill said…

Taney- Thanks- I have ordered Charlene's "The Resurgence of the Real" and will also definitely get States of Grace as yes that is a topic that is still resonating (post modernism). As to "spiritual"- I have no issues with the notion of "spirituality" and in fact was surprised to see myself essentially writing about just that in my last essay, "A Return to the Cave: Drawing as an Essential Tool for Thought and Reflection". I chose to use terms like "inner world" but this pandemic and my mother's illness have had me (and probably many others) thinking about this inner world quite a bit. So not much warming up will be necessary. Find myself constantly returning to definitions and trying to understand what I really mean when I use certain words. I will talk about that a bit in my next post I am currently working on, "Mind/Body Equivalence and the Aesthetic Form of Thinking".

Session II: The View from Today (Taney Roniger)

From the identification of form with the creatural and feminine all the way to Whitehead, the verbing of form, and the origins, original intentions, and valuable dimensions of humanism: the ground covered over the last few days has been as expansive as it has been rich. Although today brings with it a new set of questions, panelists are encouraged to further pursue any issues raised in Session I that beg deeper exploration. Below is the introduction to Session II along with some new points to consider.

Session II

The View from Today: Rebuilding Foundations

Sunday, December 6 – Monday, December 7


In light of new understandings in the sciences about the intelligence of the human body and the shift toward posthumanist ontologies in contemporary philosophy (the various new materialisms, ecophilosophy, relational ontology), art is being called upon to revise some of its longstanding assumptions. In this session we will explore how posthumanist thinking in other fields can help us reconceive the nature of aesthetic form, the form/content dichotomy, and how form acts on the human body.



2.1   If the human organism is now understood to be part of a complex web of biological, ecological, and cosmological relations, can aesthetic form be reimagined as a means by which we engage with that larger complexity?


2.2   Given recent advances in cognitive science that have brought to light the emotional and somatic underpinnings of human reason, can meaning in art be reconstrued so that it includes more than just discursive meaning?


2.3   With those same advances suggesting the inseparability of the senses from cognition, can we retire once and for all the form/content dichotomy? Can we advance a new understanding of form that expands the term to enfold content within it – a distinctly anti-Greenbergian kind of form that takes us out of ourselves, out of art, and into the world beyond us?


2.4   If visual perception is now understood to be something we do with our entire bodies, how does visual form act on the body of the viewer?


2.5   If the perception of form can be considered an act of cognition, what is the nature of this kind of thinking?


2.6   Given posthumanism’s ecological understanding of the self, can we conceive of a new generation of identity art (the current trend that focuses on the racial and gender identity of the artist) that would reflect this more complex and distributed sense of selfhood? Is there a role for form in identity art’s transition away from its fixation on the separate individual?



Response to 2.6 (Jon Sakata)

oooooooooFragmentsoofopromiscuityooCredoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooWhatoooareoootheoooooimplicationsoofoooooooMargulisoooooooooandoooooSagan’sooooooooooooooresearchooooandoooooooowritingsoooooooooooooooooooooooooconcerningooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooobacterialooooooomnisexualityooooooootooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooWhenooooooooIooooooworkedoooowithooooooCageoooooooooheooooosaidoooooooooalterityoowasoohisoooooooooooooooooooooooooidentityooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooioooooooooooGuattarioooooheldooooothatoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooomutationooowasoooohisooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo“We are each, at minimum, equal parts bacteria cells to human cells, and more likely, something on the order of a 3:1 outnumbering by the bacterial...and the bacterial and human populations within us are undergoing constant change, multiplication and death.”ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo


Deborah Barlow said…


Reading Forms (Stephanie Grilli)

In 1936, Alfred H. Barr used the term “biomorphic” to describe sculpture for his exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art. The influential founding director of MOMA gave currency to a word first coined by English critic Geoffrey Grigson that means “life forms” to characterize a trend in modern art as exhibited by Hans Arp, Jean Miro, Arshille Gorky, Henry Moore, and others. Believing that science and its instruments allowed us to tap into and connect to a life force, Wassily Kandinsky had amassed a collection of photographs of micro-organisms in which the microscope penetrated beyond the external into “the hidden soul of all things.” For the Surrealists, these liminal and unstable forms provided a formal strategy that were a means of dredging up the unconscious. When Barr created the category biomorphic it was the emotional/psychological counterpart to reason as exemplified by geometric abstraction.

We read forms in relation to other forms. Wanting to make the history of art a discipline approaching science, Heinrich Wölfflin devised a system of analyzing art with five opposed formal modes: linear/painterly, plane/recession/closed/open, multiplicity/unity, absolute clarity/relative clarity. Published in 1915, his Principles of Art History has served as the underlying premise for formal analysis ever since — “compare and contrast.” [Erwin Panofsky supplied the analysis of narrative and symbolic content with the study of iconography and iconology.] Barr’s distinction between curvilinear as intuitive and hard-edged as cerebral persists. We can unpack why that might be the case in terms of their associations. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points and speaks of calculation and no-nonsense efficiency. Whereas a curved line meanders and is more playful. Yet a curved line in a field of straight lines has a different affect than one among many. The meaning of any individual form is felt or understood in context within the closed system of the language of art.

Can an artist today can do anything more than use the elements of this language to stand for or represent a new concept? Can an artist “advance a new understanding of form” that takes us “out of art, into the world beyond us?” When Kandinsky valorized photomicrography, he applied his mystical purpose of unveiling or making visible. When an artist such as Tanguy populated worlds with biomorphic forms, he created the unease of a dreamscape with Freudian hints. An artist today creates meaning working with or against all that has been visually expressed before. I have written about the pteropod sculpture of Cornelia Kubler Kavanaugh, who speaks of the warming of the oceans and the tragic fate of these creatures at the bottom of the oceanic food chain with biomorphic forms that evoke pathos rather than whimsy. She took the language of art to something about the fragility of our ecosystem as now understood through systems relations. It seems to me that reclaiming form involves recognizing that form is content but that content is multivalent, complex, and expansive.

For the past few years, I have been interested in luminescence in contemporary painting. Since I first noticed its frequency, its use has only increased. I have considered how it is happening at a time when our world has become more luminous especially as regards backlit digital devices. Certainly the availability of sophisticated pigments allows for artistic exploration, but it certainly doesn’t explain why we would be attracted to them. [Sometimes the effect is achieved through pigment alone, and sometimes it is through contrast.] As a result of this symposium, I have been wondering whether the appeal of these colors is not based in new technology but in our ancient biology. Luminescence in nature does have evolutionary purpose, and is it possible that we are mesmerized by our handheld devices and computer and TV screens because of some sort of physical effect or wiring of our nervous system. [Note to self.]  That would suggest that this new quality of color is implicit in the body and doesn’t represent in the way a biomorphic shape would. So perhaps it is possible to connect with the world outside of ourselves in a new way. And yet…each of the artists using this type of color is using it for their individual expression, and it often seems to represent some sort of alternate or transcendent reality. [Below: Shannon Finley, Spiritual Amnesia]

Taney Roniger said…

Stephanie, I appreciate your bringing in some historical examples of form as a means of moving beyond ourselves. Kandinsky is very dear to me for exactly this reason. And you're quite right that the formal elements themselves don't change (though materials can and certainly do), so it really is a matter of recombining and recontextualizing -- *and*, of course, rethinking our thinking. You say: "It seems to me that reclaiming form involves recognizing that form is content but that content is multivalent, complex, and expansive." This interests me very much. But now we're up against the old semiotic issue: "content" means different things to different people. For some it is subject matter, for others it's whatever larger "issues" are being addressed, and for still others it's the affective resonance of the work, regardless of its imagery or whatever is being represented. I would like to suggest we consider one more thing it might mean: the somatosensory and unconscious cognitive experience of the viewer, where the artist's identity and intentions are completely removed from the picture (indeed where the ARTIST is completely removed from the picture). Maybe you can say a bit more about what content means to you beyond its being "multivalent, complex, and expansive" and synonymous with form. Or...what you imagine it might mean in the posthumanist context.

Unknown said…

So many intriguing and thought-provoking points brought up here; I wouldn’t know where to land with any single, brief comment. However, your line: “Barr’s distinction between curvilinear as intuitive and hard-edged as cerebral persists” resonates with me. It presents a great example of a false dichotomy/binary that can [and continues to] block more sophisticated thinking and new ways of going forward. Also, Taney should not be surprised that I too put a lot of weight on the “unconscious cognitive experience of the viewer” (and the artist).

Deborah Barlow said…

"Content." "Form." "Multivalent." "Subject matter." "Unconscious cognitive experience." Another deep dive!

It is my nonlinear nature to want to respond with a version of Jon Sakata's semiotic post from earlier today, "Response to 2.6." As he wrote to me, "What is content and what is form if not a mutative mess beyond control?"

But I am also very open and would welcome a more logical, analytical response from those who are gifted at doing that.

Taney Roniger said…

Thanks so much for that comment, Unknown. I'm just curious: are you one of our panelists? (I only ask because this happened once before, and I'm trying to figure out why your names don't come through in the comments.)

Stephanie Grilli said…

To unknown, regarding your comment regarding binary/dichotomy, I always wanted to have the ability to show more than 2 slides when teaching in the classroom (art in the dark). I remember being completely blown away by the set-up at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth with which you could should slides 360 degrees. I would tend to agree that this classic comparisons seem to reinforce the mind/body duality, but I think the aspect that is worth accepting is how form and its effects are achieved through elements in relation to each other. We can reference external experience to get some sense of why a formal element can be read a certain way, such as I suggested in why a straight line and a curve might have certain associations, but artists use a visual language based on internal relationships...along with a tradition of how its been expressed. So how does one...or can one...completely get out of it "into the world beyond us"? In writing about Kandinsky and other artists, I am wondering if it is a matter of expressing new ideas about that world and our place in it? I am drawn to asking: why many artists and critics have abandoned the great formal enterprise of art making?

Taney Roniger said…

Great question at the end there, Stephanie -- I would love to have people take that on!

Steven Baris said...

So sorry about my mystery man status. I thought my name was attached, but here it is: Steven Baris. Clearly I need to brush up on my blog call & response tech skills.

Taney Roniger said…

Ah, thank you for that, Steven. I was sure you were someone I knew -- I just didn't know who! I want to respond to one thing you mentioned in your comment above. You say: "Taney should not be surprised that I too put a lot of weight on the “unconscious cognitive experience of the viewer” (and the artist)." Now that I know who you are, I can say that I'm not at all surprised! But I wonder: to what degree would you say your *personal* unconscious is involved in the embodied meaning of your work? I ask because this is something I myself am eager to avoid -- i.e., my work being in any way about my personal self. I realize that it's difficult to tease apart what's personal from what's apersonal, but I'm interested in reaching always toward the apersonal, toward the parts of me that I share with other members of our species, and even with other animals and matter itself (as I think you know from my recent essay, A Silent Mattering!) -- and these not in themselves, but as they dynamically interact with my environment, local and cosmic. We have several hundred years of focus on the person of the artist bearing down on us (the artist as lone creator, set apart from the rest of the world), so this is not easy. But I do see this as the future of art: an art that attributes creation not to one being alone but always to a situated being, which is to say a being-among-multitudes.

Steven Baris said…

Challenging question, Taney! I wish I could answer succinctly, but I can’t. However, I can say that I’m intensely interested in the answer. But by definition, a conscious self (presently, he who is writing this comment) cannot know directly what’s turning and churning in that realm many have labeled the cognitive unconscious. In fact, I’m not even sure I understand what a “personal unconscious” would consist of or how it would manifest except maybe as some linkage to a conscious self/ego. (But I fully expect that I’m missing important aspects of this intriguing term.)

But to your specific question as to how that realm of my personal unconscious might drive the embodied meaning of my work, I can, for now, only nibble around the edges. I’ll start by returning to my earlier remark, echoing the previous comment on Barr’s false binary on “curvilinear/emotional” and “hard edge/cerebral.” That resonated with me because even though much of my work can be described as geometrical and (largely) hard edged, I see the cerebral as playing only a partial role in its creation. Improvisation, intuitive grasp of form, and the romancing of materiality all play equally significant parts. Whether these aspects fully qualify as transmissions of embodied meaning is an open question, but I feel they probably do. But, again, I’m only nibbling at the edges of your question. Yet another factor in my thinking and working process that I feel is critical echoes yet other comments that were made earlier in the symposium having to do with the importance of verbs over nouns—or process over static objects. I realize this doesn’t go directly to your personal/apersonal inquiry, but I feel there may be [and this would require further reflection for me to flesh this out] aspects of it playing out in my fascination with diagrammatic thinking, both in my own practice and other artists.’ Along with privileging processes over static representations, I feel it facilitates a ready engagement of art with other kinds of experiences and discourses beyond conventionally sanctioned “art,” especially mathematical and scientific.

Taney Roniger said…

Steven, I should have clarified what I meant by both of my terms (personal unconscious and apersonal unconscious). Now that I write them out, the terminology seems awkward. Here's how I'm thinking: By the personal unconscious, I mean something like the Freudian unconscious, where one's personal history (early life, relationship with parents, any trauma that's been experienced, etc.) unknowingly shapes the actions, thoughts, and attitudes of the conscious self. By the apersonal unconscious -- and perhaps the better term here would be species-earthly-cosmic unconscious -- I mean all the unconscious cognition that's determined by our evolutionary inheritance as living beings on this planet. This would include our somatic intelligence, all the thinking our body does without your knowing it, and all the ways in which we're affected by other beings, material things, and goings-on around us. All of the latter is what I consider apersonal: these are propensities we share with other bodies and beings.

On another note, I'm quite interested in how "verbing" informs your art-making. Is it that the forms that emerge in your paintings are a function of your process, or is it something perhaps more specific? I'm reflecting on this very question with regards to my own work.

Finally, I'm not sure if you saw this comment I made to Daniel earlier, but you might find it interesting:

Daniel, there's so much in your post that calls for response, but for now I'd like to push a bit further into one aspect, which is your characterization of art as trafficking in the subjective while science, on the other end of the spectrum, deals in the objective. For me, one of the most significant objectives in moving beyond humanism is to redefine what we mean by both terms, or to learn to inhabit a space somewhere between the two. In her new book, our fellow panelist Jane Bennett explores a new model of subjectivity in which the self is experienced as a porous being in constant dynamic interchange with the nonhuman forces that surround it. Acutely attentive and open to the world, this self lets itself be acted upon, influenced by, the material conditions and affective states of the things it encounters, in turn acting upon and influencing them as it "exhales" what is taken in. Because of its outward orientation (its being "dilated" to the world), and because it takes into itself that which it is not (i.e., nonhuman forces), there are aspects of this subjectivity that are distinctly apersonal and "objective." I find this a wonderfully compelling model for a new kind of subjectivity - one that dovetails precisely with my aspirations for art. Can we envision a model for art that is similarly apersonal? And might this be a way for art and science to meet in the middle, as it were? In any case, I highly recommend reading the book; I think it will make you reconsider many things that are taken for granted. (It's called Influx and Efflux, published by Duke University Press.)

Steven Baris said…

I'll get back to you you on this (hopefully) later today, and thanks for pointing out your earlier response to Daniel. For now, I just wanted to quote a single sentence I happened upon this morning reading a fascinating "art" book--one of its collaborators is a friend of mine. I thought of you. "How to make sure that seeing anything is not seeing oneself?" Sort of says it all.


Steven Baris said…

As for your question of how “verging informs my art,” how to begin? I’m keenly aware of the profound contradiction woven into so much of my art practice; namely, that I mostly traffic in static images and forms with the intention of representing (I prefer “enacting” although this may be somewhat conceited of me) dynamic, implicitly temporal processes. [Actually, is this any more of a contradiction than all those painted flat surfaces out there purporting to representing 3D spaces?] Regardless, it’s what drives the work and also my interest in what I call diagrammatic thinking, which, as I alluded to above, is so often oriented to processes. Certainly the ubiquity of sequences in my work allude to temporal processes. But because I’m a lazy person, I’m pasting in a short statement I wrote for my Jump Cut series, which I feel captures more of how “verbing” plays out in my work. “Jump Cut is a cinematic term for a specific kind of failure (purposeful or not) to convey an illusion of continuous time and space. This occurs in the editing when contiguous clips of the same subject are sequenced from camera positions that vary only slightly. This causes a disruption of the viewer’s experience of seamless cinematic space and time. For me, the jump cut offers the perfect analog to the kinds of spatial/temporal disjunctions we often experience in our hyper networked and accelerated lifeworld. Of course, the representation of space/time in my work is not filmic but rather what I would describe as diagrammatic—a geometric syntax of nested and overlapping frames. Ultimately I am interested in how these arrays of conflicting spatial cues and disrupted sequences conjure a sense of space/time that is highly elastic and ambiguous.”

One more thing that may be of interest to you at a later time when you can watch it. It’s an interview with Robert Wright and Leda Cosmides who is a key thinker and researcher in evolutionary psychology and who is one of the folks who’ve pushed what is called the modular theory of the mind. I bring this to your attention as it directly addresses what you you described above as “ the unconscious cognition that's determined by our evolutionary inheritance as living beings on this planet.” Anyway, here’s the URL. No pressure to watch it; there will be no quiz given.

Daniel Hill said…

Stephanie- very interesting points here- makes me wonder if we have no other ways of communicating than those mentioned by Wolfflin, does this mean it has all been exhausted? You write: "I am drawn to asking: why many artists and critics have abandoned the great formal enterprise of art making?" Is this a consequence of our overall atrophying aesthetic intelligence due to art's low status in society and hence lack of education? Or is that it has all been said already? Or is it the lure of technology? Can it be that the visual language of art is exhausted? Is it possible that a post-humanist art means no art at all, but just a more intimate, sensuous appreciation for nature?

Stephanie Grilli said…

Years ago, I went to a lecture in Boulder by one of my Pitt professors, David Summers. He told of one of his colleagues, and African art historian who was African, who talked about the language of art history and its terms as "giving something a face." In other words, it allows us to put a face on something that is a very complex organism and allows us to meet it, interact it with it, and, importantly, allow us to talk about it with others. And as with any conceptualization allows us to begin to extend our thoughts and create others...generative and increasingly differentiating. The problem lies when we grant an "is"-ness to the descriptor or concept. So Wolfflin comes up with something that allowed us to go beyond subjective taste and artist bio, but in the hands of those with limited insight it became

concretized. The same goes with critical theory, which originated as an approach and a methodology but became an overdetermining set of frameworks.

Nietzche: "What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions- they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins."

Today I posted "We Have Been Here Before," which begins to address the questions you raise.

Link to first guest speaker event: Discussion with artist Christine Corday (Taney Roniger)

This afternoon we were honored to be joined by Christine Corday, an artist who works with elemental metals to create monumental sculptures. Afterward, our panel engaged her in a lively discussion that touched on many of the points we have covered in our dialogue. Readers are encouraged to post questions and comments for Christine here; she will be checking and I'm sure will be delighted to respond.

Christine Corday artist talk: Thingly Affinities: Christine Corday.

Deborah Barlow said…

Christine, this was an unforgettable presentation. There were so many points of resonance for me in these 90 minutes. Thank you for sharing, openly and articulately.

Charlene used a wonderful word to describe your language and point of view: fresh. That’s another way of saying your authenticity is unquestioned and in tact.

Intimacy is indifferent to scale.

Material phases of suns.

How to observe what you cannot see.

Objects that defy objecthood.

Art without being an artist.

We are all looking at the same clay.

Happy to be alive in the down cycle (or up cycle) of shared material, shared disciplines.

This all speaks to a deeply devotional practice.

Scale was a term used many times in your presentation. Your projects and explorations operate at a level that is rarefied and larger than life. Meanwhile many of us are working at a very different place on the scale spectrum. I am now considering what outcomes I can achieve that are, like intimacy, indifferent to scale. It is a useful and clarifying question to ask, one inspired by your words.

Taney Roniger said…

Yes to all that, Deborah -- Christine is such an inspiration. As I said last night, one of the things I so admire about her is her determination to bring art back out into the real world - out beyond the petty concerns of the soulless and obsolescing gallery system and into the larger cultural sphere, where it can actually make a difference. (I say "back out" because "out" is indeed where art originated: out there in the larger community, a shared cultural force belonging to everyone and of which everyone partook.) One of her favorite phrases is "art as cultural infrastructure." This is exactly what I envision for a posthumanist art -- an approach to art that is other-oriented, out-oriented, oriented away from the self and toward our shared beinghood as Earthlings, where "Earthling" extends beyond the human to include all that is of the earth that is nonhuman too. Christine's ITER project speaks so beautifully to this idea. Humble, anonymous, and deeply interdependent with all the other parts, her little bolt sits tucked into that enormous structure, unseen and unheard, yet spreading its symbolic resonance through the enterprise as a whole. Art with a capital A as the 36th participating country: can you imagine how much this has inspired all the other countries involved? And I can guarantee that it's revised more than a few assumptions about art long held by people who have no familiarity with what we do and why.

Deborah Barlow said…

Taney, That's a wonderful summation of one of the many highlights from Christine's presentation.Thank you for pulling it together so succinctly.

I have been thinking about the presentation steadily over the last 24 hours, and now new questions are coming to the surface. I would so appreciate hearing Christine talk about the tension/relationship/confluence that exists between logical cognition and intuition in how to chart the next project, how to determine the direction of one's work.

I know those are loaded terms, so perhaps I can phrase it another way that most artists will recognize: How do you decide when to follow those inchoate urges rather than the logical/strategic mind, and vice versa? With so many project possibilities to consider, how do you go about choosing your next step?

Reason and emotion: continuing a line of inquiry (Taney Roniger)

In a comment to a recent post by Jon Sakata, Deborah Barlow suggested the following as something the group might like to pursue. Jon’s question was: "Who was it that posited that the opposition between reason and feeling is illusory? Rather, that reason is a special form of feeling. In other words, feeling is a continuum inclusive of reason."

Below is the content from that comment thread. Would anyone care to chime in? I do agree that this seems particularly relevant.

Deborah Barlow: More on this please, from anyone.

Taney Roniger: Jon and Deborah, Do you mean that someone from the past -- one of the Enlightenment figures, perhaps -- posited that the reason/feeling opposition is illusory? If so, I'd love to hear more on this. Of course, if you're referring to a contemporary figure that's another story altogether -- and one on which I'd have much to say!

Jon Sakata: Hume-Deleuze?

Taney Roniger: It could well be that Hume and Deleuze made this claim - very interesting. What I had in mind were people like Antonio Damasio, George Lakoff, and Mark Johnson, all of whom have written extensively on this in recent times. What was revelatory for me when I first read Lakoff was the idea that (and he has studied this empirically -- it's not just conjecture) the entire human conceptual apparatus arises from our embodied, sensual contact with the world, and as such consists mostly, if not entirely, of metaphors involving bodily actions. (Jon is of course talking about *feeling,* or emotion, but we seem to have no problem allowing that emotions arise from our embodied being in the world. And if reason is a function of emotion, and emotion is a function of our embodiment, then what I'm saying is similar.) But then when you think about it, how could it be otherwise? Old claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it's not like reason just descended on us from some mysterious celestial source; it had to have been born of the earth, just like everything else about us. And on emotion specifically, Antonio Damasio's claim (again, proven empirically) is that not only are reason and emotion fundamentally connected, but reason is entirely *dependent* upon emotion. To think that all this time we've gotten this so wrong. Another facet of human hubris, I suppose: to assume that things we *wish* were the case are in fact the case. I love what was said earlier about affect being so much more difficult than reason -- so much more difficult to inhabit -- and that rather than owning this difficulty, we ("we") divorced ourselves from it and cast it on to women!

Deborah Barlow: Taney, this is compelling and full of rich veins to explore. Thank you for taking this on. I am also hoping Sarah Robinson will weigh as well. (She did a symposium and subsequent publication on Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design.)

Taney Roniger: Rich indeed! I can make this a separate thread so others will be sure to see it. I do think it calls for some in-depth attention.

Jon Sakata: That sounds like a great idea, Taney! Great to finally meet you and really enjoyed today's talk with Christine!

Arthur Whitman said…

Sorry for being so slow to jump in here. As a prologue to saying something in more depth about how the whole "embodied cognition" school in cognitive science has influenced my thinking about contemporary (visual) art and my practice as a journalistic art critic, I'd like to offer praises for Mark Johnson's perhaps somewhat neglected 2007 book, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of the Human Body. As well as coming along at an advantageous time for me personally (I started doing newspaper reviews in 2006) I found the book to be a magisterial but accessible synthesis of phenomenology and traditional aesthetics with a broad range of findings from the neuro- and cognitive sciences. I recommend the book and all of Johnson's work tremendously.

I am delving into Sarah Robinson's edited volume mentioned by Deborah (and reposted by Taney) above. I understand that she is drawing off of that work and that of other thinkers from the neurophenomenlogical, embodied and "4E" camps. Let me just say here that I find all of this incredibly bracing and of great promise for moving beyond stale debates between a conservative, reductively formalist modernism and what Taney is calling a "deconstructive" postmodernism.

Taney Roniger said…

Arthur, thank you for drawing our attention to the Mark Johnson book. I will add that to the reading list! And I didn't realize Sarah's compilation was available online (or am I mistaken?). I'll certainly add that to the list as well.

Circling Back (Stephanie Grilli)

Taney asked me to address what I mean when I say that content is multivalent, complex, and expansive. Years ago, I taught an Intro to Art class in which I regaled students with taking a single artwork and re-framing it in multiple contexts and bringing forth multiple aspects and interpretations. After the first grading, a student wrote a letter to the dean of the school complaining that in my lecture I contradicted myself and that I didn’t supply the meaning to be given on the exam. In other classroom situations whenever I had Seurat’s La Grande Jatte on an exam, I could rest assured that almost every student would include that the monkey symbolized infidelity, because this was the one instance in which there was a singular reason for that figure being there. Those encountering the study of art want there to be a handy guidebook that lays out “if you see this, it means x.” The struggle becomes one of getting a student to see the picture as a painting — something made of materials involving choices that could be informed by training, tradition, temperate, and a host of other factors. So while everyday experience requires us to flatten meaning, engaging with a work of art involves an unfolding that can be never-ending (a dilation, as Roland Barthes would have it). While a work of art was born of a conceit at a specific moment in time, it contains more and expands as it becomes the sum total of all the ways it is received, which includes all the various ways in which someone may take content to mean.

Taney also asks about the somatosensory and unconscious cognitive experience. We may want to circle back. At a time when psychology turned to matters of perception and cognition, artists in the late nineteenth century began to explore ways in which works of art could bypass intellectual operations. Someone like Gauguin explored color in terms of the direct physical impact it had on the body. Associated with his association with Analytical Cubism, Cezanne was actually concerned with trying to portray the “small sensations” experienced before familiar landscapes in the south of, creating complex compositions to comingle what he saw, felt, and knew. One might say that Seurat tried to remove the artist from the picture by devised a system based on contemporary color theory in which a painting might be executed without actually seeing the color, and the units of paint were not expected to come together outside of the perceiving viewer. [Seurat was an anarchist, and the means by which he created his paintings aligned with its philosophy of the individual working in his/her own dignity with other individuals to create society.] Interestingly, each of these artists signaled that something new was going on through comparison to other artworks in similar categories or traditions. Herein it is the form that spoke of something new rather than subject, and it would continue that way for decades to come. The early 20th-century includes many artist groups who believed that it was through form that consciousness could be change to usher in a new utopian world.

So what happened? Maybe we should look to the sequence of “isms” that collided into each other, as the twentieth century progressed ending in minimalism that left only conceptualism. This was the sixties, and there certainly was a lot of touchy-feely art then, but you could just as well liberate yourself and create the aesthetic experience in your own mind. No one believed form could bring about a revolution anymore, and rather than a vocabulary that could be used to say something new, form could be put in quotation marks. These vocabularies were also co-opted by commercial design. Form still has power, i.e. the power to sell. Maybe even worse, form and the pursuit of new form became associated with the powers-that-be rather than something that could be transcendent. We earned that Abstract Expressionism was used by the US government to show Communist countries just how we valued the individual. Maybe the whole idea of a shared humanity or a shared human experience became suspect. Or maybe it just became too much of a thankless task to teach art students how form can have meaning.

This morning I happened to read a post by Maria Popova on her website Brainpickings: “Joseph Conrad on Writing and the Role of the Artist.” I wanted to include passages from Conrad here, but it was just too difficult to chose one that is relevant to our discussion.

Deborah Barlow said…

"So while everyday experience requires us to flatten meaning, engaging with a work of art involves an unfolding that can be never-ending (a dilation, as Roland Barthes would have it)."

Well said Stephanie, and so valuable for this symposium topic. Thanks.

Taney Roniger said…

Stephanie, I can't tell you how glad I am that you bring up your experience teaching art history. To me, this is a huge part of the problem. The way art history is taught leaves people with the errant assumption that art is about signification -- this signifies this, that signifies that -- and that the idea in experiencing art is to get in there and "decode" it. This has always struck me as anathema, and now of course there's the additional burden of pretentious language and the ubiquitous imperative to attach social justice narratives to everything. (As an aside, my husband took an art history course at the university where he teaches a few years ago, and he was puzzled to discover that the whole thing was about this strange concept called the "institutional critique." Imagine having that be your first exposure to art!). (Needless to say, he never took another art history course.) I think this is a question that will come up in the next session, but let me pose it here just to get us thinking: How can we restructure the way art is taught so that the subtle language of form isn't just a container for what we call "content" but *is* the very thing to which we should attend? How would we talk about historical paintings in this way -- paintings that clearly do have narratives, however secondary they may be? I wonder if you have any specific ideas?

Stephanie Grilli said…

There are a number of ways to answer your question. I’ll start by iterating what I’ve already suggested about art as a visual language, and that visual language has to be learned. I don’t think this applies only to what you’re calling decoding. I once had to put together a class at the very last minute and grabbed a bunch of Georgia O’Keefe paintings to show. I thought it would be a matter of the students and I groovin’ on the forms, but to my shock and amazement only about five out of a group of fifty thought they were anything more than a joke. When we are discussing the way form can register in the body, I think we need to recognize that this isn’t something that comes naturally, as it were, in our culture. If anything, beginning to understand the language of art also attunes someone to sensory experience in everyday life. I think of Rauschenberg statement to the effect that he wanted his artwork to have people look outside the artwork.

I have no problem with signification. I do have a problem with agendas or signification that is reductive, which is what an analysis that leads to “institutional critique” seems to be. When I taught at university, I could teach critical theory with one hand tied behind my back, but in the early days of post-modernism, it was a way of getting a new vantage point on art making and art history. It quickly became solidified methodology with a set of templates overlaid to arrive at an over-determined outcome. What is signified isn’t anything that may have to do with the expression of ideas as couched by the artist or the historic moment, which is the dialogue I prefer to have. The trend in making art is start with the singular concept to signify and finding the appropriate codes, rather than thinking through materials and process to arrive at an unknown. Allow for signification in its complexity and then you bump up against the ineffable.

I do think the lack of visual literacy makes it easier for exhibition venues to have themes that people can grasp. Take a socially current subject and include artists who address it. Give people the sense that they’ve been challenged but ultimately make the experience easily digestible.

2.1-2.3 More Crumbling Dualities (Charles Eisenstein)

In Session 1 the panel has been demolishing key dualities, such as mind/body, reason/emotion, and human/nature. That is not to say that these dualities shed no light on the human being, but that when reified they become polarizing lenses that filter out the entanglements between them. Now we move on to form/content, as well as two more implicit binaries: in 2.1, that implied in the word “aesthetic,” which for a long time (at least since Kant) has carried connotations of formalism and anti-utilitarianism, and in 2.2, the distinction between symbol and object implied by “meaning.” So I think the panel will probably proceed to dismantle these dualities as well. I’ll start us off: The herbalist-philosopher Stephen Harrod Buhner makes a strong case that the vaunted human uniqueness of the use of symbol is just another anthropocentric conceit. What qualitative difference is there, he asks, between insect pheromones and spoken words? His point is all the more valid when we accept the somatic dimension of cognition. When we can’t isolate cognition in the brain (or nonmaterial mind), then necessarily the distinction between symbol and direct causal agent breaks down as well. This has obvious consequences for the question of meaning in art raised in 2.2. We cannot separate it from the physical impact on the body – which of course depends on the full set of embodied relations referred to in 2.1. Ultimately, the breakdown of these dualities entails the breakdown of the distinction between fine and applied arts, and even the category of art altogether. I’m sure scholars have discussed in exhaustive depth the definitions and undefinability of art, so I’ll end here before I venture too far out of my depth.

Taney Roniger said…

Charles, to your last point first: Scholars have indeed poured much ink into the definition of art and/or its undefinability, but I'd say very few have gone so far as to suggest the inevitable dissolution of the category of art itself. (This could be due to a failure of imagination, but perhaps it's just that art people are too invested in their subject to assert themselves out of a career!) But I'm all for it. Why should we set aside a certain category of things and experiences that are to be considered more special than, somehow elevated above, everything else? What if we were to consider everything special so that we were surrounded by a world of things that enhance the wellbeing of our organism, that infuse all aspects of life with a sense of rightness and belonging? (This does, however, introduce another questionable binary: that between human-made artifacts and forms shaped by nature. In our live conversation the other night one of our philosophers mentioned that this is what the form/matter dichotomy has meant to philosophy: form refers to things shaped by human will and matter to the naturally occurring stuff of which form is made - which I find very strange. Is this a distinction that should go as well? After all, we *are* nature.) In any case, your point about the symbol/object dualism is intriguing, and begs further discussion. I'm all for wresting the word "meaning" away from its cerebral associations. I'm going to look into the book you mention -- thanks for that.

Taney Roniger said…

Actually I see now that you didn't mention a specific book. Is it in The Lost Language of Plants that Stephen Harrod Buhner addresses these ideas?

Charles Eisenstein said…

It might have been in a personal conversation and not in one of his books. But it could have been The Lost Language of Plants.

I do know of some radical thinkers who question the category of art. I think I came across the idea decades ago in the writing of Joseph Eppes Brown that observes that many indigenous languages do not have a word for art, since it was so interwoven into life that they didn't conceive of it as a distinct category.

As for form being what is shaped by human will, I think that is human exceptionalism sneaking in through the back door. Saying that only humans can be the source of a structuring intentionality.

Stephanie Grilli said…

The concept of Art (capital 'A") as a value unto itself didn't really come to be until the late 18th-century in the Western world. Sure, Michelangelo created sculptures, but he wouldn't have thought of himself as an artist. Those things we call artworks would have been integrated into social/political/religious custom and practice. Images would have a power in a way other than aesthetic. Titian's "Venus of Urbino" would have been for prurient interest and not the artist's command of paint. The idea of Art is tied to art as commodity (bought, sold, collected) as well as national collections in which the accumulation of artwork speaks of status. This is the system we still have today.

One thing that has come along is teaching art and art history within universities, which has traditionally been done as a history of artistic change in which those artists credited with bringing about the change are included in the narrative. The concept of evolution has been incorporated into the narrative such that the goal of an artist is to create something new or unique. Surprisingly, even though post-modernism question the "new, better, best" paradigm of modernism and gave artists permission to cull from the past, this albatross of "that's been done before" still hangs around the art world's neck.

That Art came to be at a certain moment in history allows for the possibility that art making could be culturally situated differently. What are the systems and beliefs that would have to change?

Response to 2.1 (Charlene Spretnak)


Taney asks, “If the human organism is now understood to be part of a complex web of biological, ecological, and cosmological relations, can aesthetic form be reimagined as a means by which we engage with that larger complexity?”


This is a huge and fertile question. So much has been discovered in recent years about the dynamic interrelatedness by which humans and the entire physical world are actually structured and actually function that, if a nature-oriented posthumanist aesthetic ever did carry the day, I think just catching up on what we now know about how every entity and every being is creatively engaged at every nanosecond with vast fields of interrelatedness would be part of art education! For starters, artists might find useful Relational Reality (2011), a book in which I present and consider recent discoveries of dynamic interrelatedness in human physiology – how we are inherently affected by our connections with nature and with other people. Finally, the biomechanistic model of the body is being challenged and nudged aside after 300 years by the new findings. We cannot really grasp the implications of the new relational knowledge, though, unless we set ourselves on a learning curve because it is so different from what we learned in our modern schooling.


Since the act of perceiving art (or anything else) is now understood to be dynamic and relational and since a “subject” of a posthumanist artwork might well be contemplation of nature and cosmos (including us) as unimaginably dynamic and interrelated, what form-subject might by evoked by our new awareness of all the creative and lively complexity? This is a formidable aesthetic challenge that could never be exhausted.

Taney Roniger said…

Charlene, it excites me to think about art addressing as its subject matter the dynamic interrelatedness of nature and cosmos. I would say this perfectly describes the work we saw the other day of Christine's. It was interesting to hear her say that she has little interest in form, not just because that happens to be the focus of our symposium but also because it implies that matter alone is enough to evoke this dynamic interrelatedness. But of course her sculptures *do* manifest as perceptual forms; it's just that the forms they embody are not willfully shaped by her. This leads me to wonder if one of the reasons we respond so deeply to Christine's work is exactly the fact that it is shaped by natural forces. I'm now thinking of Noguchi and how in his later years he began to do less and less to his stones, instead letting nature do the sculpting for him. All of this leads me to a preliminary answer to your final question here, namely (if I understood you correctly)what kind of forms a posthumanist art might take. It seems to me that one of these would be the kind of form that results from a collaboration with nonhuman forces -- a kind whose antithesis would be the rigid grids, cubes, etc. of the Minimalist art of the last century. If the maxim for the latter was "What you see is what you see," what might be the one for this kind of form?

Wendy Beth Hyman said…

This is a small point, but I suspect this is really consonant with Christine's commitment to elementalism. DNA sequences, for example, contain sets of instructions that are encoded in their form (the order of nucleotides are not random), but are not *about* their form. Apologies for probably conveying this ineptly. But at any rate, the element FORMS, and the form is elegant as we perceive it (double helix), but incidental--a quality of the matter itself. I wonder if this is a fair comparison.

The other thought spurred by your post, Charlene, was indeed about whether certain arts--dance, music, maybe sculpture--naturally lean more towards this kind of collaborative process, at least for us westerners. When I put a brush on a canvas I cannot let go of the idea that "I" am "doing" something "to" the canvas. I do not feel something moving through me in the way that I think a musician/singer or dancer feels.

Which sparks a thought about the etymology of artistic "inspiration"--being breathed into. And "persona": a thing through which sound moves.

Response to 2.1 (Carrie Rohman)

In case it hasn't been obvious from my posts so far, my most recent book Choreographies of the Living: Bioaesthetics in Literature, Art, and Performance (2018) makes exactly this case, through the particular lens of animal or creatural becomings-artistic and the vibratory forces that all creatures self-perform.  There, I look at writers (D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf), dancers, performers and musicians (mainly Isadora Duncan, Rachel Rosenthal, Merce Cunningham and John Cage).  I essentially argue that the artistic impulse should be viewed as a creatural or animal impulse, not as a later, human one.  

   While I obviously can't summarize the entire book here, I end the book with the following claim:  "... one of our challenges and tasks for the 21st century is to see aesthetics even more broadly as "creaturizing," so that our artistic undertakings—those we have traditionally viewed as exclusive and "elevated"—are framed in ways that truly resonate with strangers, in a shared system that is fully more-than-human in all its fragility, but also in all its creative aliveness and improvisation.  The transporting power of art, the becoming-intense of aesthetics, the felt vibrations of aesthetic forces, and the taste for certain affect-circulating performances all have their "ancestral" lineage for us in animals' aesthetic engagements.  Bioaesthetics thus reminds us that the world of art includes hordes of other creatural actors and living assemblages—that these beings always have been artistic.  And finally, I would submit that all this makes the artistic, in every permutation, even more extraordinary."

Taney Roniger said…

Hear hear, Carrie. And, considering Christine's presentation the other night and Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, we might also include the creativity of matter itself. Reconceptualizing aesthetics so that it extends beyond the human is something that's going to take time -- and there is clearly going to be resistance. I wonder if you or anyone else has suggestions for how we can make these ideas more palatable, or even beyond more palatable, how to make them alluringly transformative. I agree with your last statement -- that "all this makes the artistic, in every permutation, even more extraordinary" -- but how to convince those who are deeply invested in art's humanness? 

Deborah Barlow said…

What a provocative quote Carrie. Creaturizing. Artistic undertakings that resonate with strangers. A shared system that is fully more-than-human in all its fragility. Just ordered a copy of the book.

Carrie Rohman said…

Yes, I should have mentioned that Jane's work (primarily her book Vibrant Matter) was deeply influential to my own thinking. I was so fortunate to study with her in the summer of 2013, at the Cornell School of Criticism and Theory, while I was in the trenches of writing this book-- and her incredible ways of thinking about vitalism, matter, etc. are threaded throughout the 2018 book. The vibratory is something that I consider all creatures "harnessing," as part of their cosmic, earthly becomings-artistic. Jane's ideas about the swerve of matter linked up very fruitfully with my own interests in movement and dance, as well. Matter itself is most definitely creative (!), and I look at that idea perhaps most prominently in Virginia Woolf's writing, but also elsewhere, in relation to choreography and other ideas (using Whitehead etc.) about the becoming-creative of all matter / lifeforms. Christine's illuminating presentation and work link up beautifully with all of these efforts, to push creativity itself well beyond the human "fraternity."

Taney, great question about how to make all this more convincing to entrenched "humanists" in the arts, specifically. The only thing I can come up with at the moment is to continue pointing out that our beliefs in human superiority have gotten us right where we are, in the current ecological crisis that literally could signal the end of the whole show. I do think that rehearsing this line of thinking (that began with ecofeminism, etc.) can continue to be persuasive. It really should be accumulating, in its persuasion. Those who are highly theoretically and "rationality" oriented can take up other strands of posthumnist philosophy, which show again and again how the "human" was never itself, how it was always a fantasy of control, separation, and reason, etc. Perhaps those ideas just need to be linked more forcefully to the (in my view, outmoded) idea of art as only human.

It might also take practicing artists being prompted, encouraged, reminded to think and speak about their own processes as deeply inter and intra-- as has happened in this very forum quite beautifully. Merce Cunningham for instance drew animals and plants in his "amateur" sketch book nearly every morning for decades. And so, even his work-- which was often considered very "architectural" and non-emotive-- was totally entangled with nonhuman forces. (Of course, I would argue that all dance, especially dance, is entangled with nonhuman forces, but this is an example of the creatural and bio being *explicitly* evidenced in that artist's process).

Introducing Session III: Aesthetic Form, Posthumanism, and the Spiritual Dimension (Taney Roniger)

With so many of the threads begun in Session II still active, I’ve delayed my post introducing Session III until just now (see below). Although Session III takes us into a new angle on our subject, I want to encourage everyone to continue with any of the older threads that call for further exploration. Also, do remember to check the comments under your previous posts; people may be responding days after the posts were made.

Session III

Aesthetic Form, Posthumanism, and the Spiritual Dimension

Tuesday, December 8 – Wednesday, December 9


With the waning of humanism and its deification of the human, some of the more hubristic assumptions of secularism have also been shaken. In this session we will explore how emerging understandings of humans’ embeddedness within a larger whole might reinvest art with a spiritual and/or cosmological dimension and what role art might play in this nascent identity of the human.



3.1    Is there a spiritual dimension to the language of form, and if so how does it differ from the kind that might be conveyed through discursive content?


3.2    Is there an ethical dimension to aesthetic form?


3.3    Is there an ethical or spiritual dimension to matter itself, even before it is shaped by the art-making human organism?


3.4    Is there an inherent relationship between form and “interbeing,” Thich Nhat Hanh’s word for the relational nature of the physical world? In what ways might form open us to a spiritual experience of this reality?


3.5   Can a new sense of aesthetic form help shift conventional assumptions about spirituality and religion that invariably invoke a paternalistic sky God? Can it pull us into greater awareness of a spirituality of immanence?


3.6    Are there other approaches to the religio-spiritual-ethical dimension that aesthetic form might actively engage?


 Response to 3.5 (Jon Sakata)

Not sure if there is a better word than 'spirituality' for what I shared during the weekend's talk about my experience with Christine's UNE at LACMA: the suspicion and dismissal of what I saw as an 'industrial' object, how this transformed into the 'cosmological' as I passed through it, the sense of portal bringing me to the dissolving of 'object' and even 'objecthood' to a state of transport that defied -- and still defies -- explanation, formulation, bearing, belief (yes, dis-belief at the heart of the spiritual)...

Emergence from UNE: 'material/force' eclipsing 'form/matter' only to avail a second eclipsing of 'material/force' by the ineffable, dematerialized wonder of it all…


Another emergence (via Kandinsky's didactic gem):

Today I am going to the cinema.

Today I am going. to the cinema

Today I. am going to the cinema

Today I am going to the cinema




Taney Roniger said…

Jon, your description of that experience on Sunday was so beautiful. I haven't experienced UNE in the flesh myself, but I can imagine how its massive presence would invoke that kind of double eclipsing. I've had similar experiences with Noguchi's works -- and also with the stones at Stonehenge, which I got to see up close (I could touch them and smell them!) on a private visit two years ago. For me, what was so remarkable was that, even though these works -- both the Noguchis and Stonehenge -- were made of stone, each had a sense of the numinous that wasn't entirely alien or other. There was a warmth there -- not a human warmth for sure, but it was as if the stones were beckoning me back into my evolutionary past, to my own origins in nonhuman minerals and microbes. This is so very different from the transcendent spirituality of someone like Kandinsky, whose works point to some other realm with which I share no fleshly convergence.

Jon Sakata said…

Taney, I remember my wife and I were almost kicked out of the Noguchi museum in Queens, because we kept touching his late basalt works after repeated reprimands to stop doing so! Yes, we felt such a deep warmth, connection, magnetism to each of them; almost something like they were echo-relatives from an earlier shared existence, ("evolutionary past...nonhuman metals and microbes" indeed!).


I struggle a lot with Kandinsky's (fleshless) "Point to Line to Plane" example. I guess this fleshlessness is also part of my attraction to engage with how he used it as an example for the 'emergence of sound' (out of the functional and mute "."). The series of (his human) interventions to gradient presences towards an untethering from the lingual to be liberated as 'sound' strikes me as an engineered maneuvering. And yet, it also provokes me to query the sequence from 'particle' proceduring to entire 'plane' [of immanence']--and how the technology of the written cross-thresholds into a realm of (in-)visible sonic presence, pulse, power--as far more than a 'designed' outcome.

Deborah Barlow said…

Jon, you are the universal donor (and Magus magician) who moves lineages of every stripe into the realm of sound. From illicit touching of Noguchis to UNE to Kandinsky...echo relatives indeed.

Jon Sakata said…

As Brother Todd [Hearon] would say: "Pour me a big one!"

Reason and emotion: continuing a line of inquiry (Sarah Robinson)

I am also a fan of Mark Johnson's work in general and in particular The Meaning of the Body. Johnson's own thoughts on the emotion/reason continuum stem from two thinkers: John Dewey and Merleau-Ponty. Both he and George Lakoff acknowledge their mutual indebtedness to them in The Philosophy in the Flesh. Their mantra in that book was that: The mind is inherently embodied, reason is mostly unconscious, abstract concepts are largely metaphorical and reason is emotionally engaged and evolutionary and is rooted in perceptual and motor repertoire that we share with other animals.

In his essay in Mind in Architecture, Mark Johnson speaks of how radical John Dewey's understanding of emotion actually was. Emotion, for Dewey was not only personal and internal it is endemic to the situation at hand, emotions are simultaneously an expression and an attunement to the situation in which we are embedded. Dewey called the ear the emotional sense for this very reason—sound moves us directly. Emotion is not strictly an internal condition but a coextensive awareness gauging inner and outer situations. This relationship between sound/ear and emotions likely accounts for why music moves us so deeply, Jon Sakata, are you with me?  

Maurice Merleau-Ponty insisted that an angry gesture does not make us think of anger, it is anger itself. Which is akin to the poet Jane Hirshfield's observation that one cannot skip while angry or rage in a tender voice. When understood this way, emotion suddenly seems reasonable, that is, ia reasonable psycho-bio-chemical embodiment of the situation in which we find ourselves. A leading thinker in affect and emotion is the philosopher Giovanna Colombetti, who studied with Mark Johnson, Evan Thompson and Shaun Gallagher and her book The Feeling Body, is a must read.

Deborah Barlow said…

Sarah, Where in this constellation would you place Jean Gebser?

(And thanks for yet another book I have to read. This symposium has become a book lust fest!)

Arthur Whitman said…

The thing that struck me most about Johnson's book was his ability to synthesize a wide range of scientific and philosophical thought, and to wrap everything up in a way that felt both deeply personal and completely of-the-moment. He also draws on thinkers as varied as William James, Suzanne Langer, Rudolf Arnhem, and Antonio Damasio.

Daniel Hill said…

Love this line: "The mind is inherently embodied, reason is mostly unconscious, abstract concepts are largely metaphorical and reason is emotionally engaged and evolutionary and is rooted in perceptual and motor repertoire that we share with other animals."

Arthur Whitman said…

It`s all true.

Response to Sarah concerning reason and emotion: continuing a line of inquiry (Jon Sakata)

Completely with you, Sarah, concerning the "relationship between sound/ear and emotions" and I wish to particularly focus in on your use of "why music moves us so deeply." To pick up on an earlier post that involved the French term sens with 'directionality': the movements of mind/body/imagination/emotions/etc. in ways that are not wholly predictable, controllable, explainable, comprehensible -- how sound (not just 'music') can get so directly on to our nervous system, into our veins and brain stem, our entire physiology, affect our biochemistry so intensely and subtly (pharmaceutically?), without necessarily going through any form of narrativity or conceptualization, let alone other gradients of linguality. I feel I carry around sounds far more powerfully and with greater longevity than any lingual sign or form of signification.


On a completely different track concerning reason and its relation to human emotion and action, a Foucauldian intervention:

“All human behavior is scheduled and programmed through rationality. There is a logic of institutions and in behavior and in political relations. In even the most violent ones there is a rationality. What is most dangerous in violence is its rationality. Of course, violence itself is terrible. But the deepest root of violence and its permanence come out of the form of the rationality we use. The idea had been that if we live in the world of reason, we can get rid of violence. This is quite wrong. Between violence and rationality there is no incompatibility.”

Taney Roniger said…

Jon, you've provided a beautiful encapsulation of the way sound acts on the body: "sound (not just 'music') can get so directly on to our nervous system, into our veins and brain stem, our entire physiology, affect our biochemistry so intensely and subtly (pharmaceutically?), without necessarily going through any form of narrativity or conceptualization, let alone other gradients of linguality." Thank you for this. I'm wondering if we can say something similar about visual form. Because while I agree there's something particularly direct about sound (the physicality of its pulse, the way it penetrates and vibrates inside your cavities and organs), and while the non-representational nature of (most) music gives it a backdoor pass around the grasping and cunning intellect, I've often felt the same deep somatic intensity (that literal "being moved") before great works of abstract art. (As I've said elsewhere here, representational work rarely does this to me, although I should confess that I look at a whole lot less of it than abstraction!) Vision may be the most detached sense in its capacity to function over great distances, but I don't consider a fleshly encounter with visual art an exclusively visual affair. For me, there are the smells (whether these register consciously or not), the way the thing sits in space, the dialogue it engages with all other things in proximity, the way it charges up the air around it with its material presence and the dynamic interplay of its compositional forces. In short, when I stand before a great work of visual art I don't just feel it emotionally, I feel it as an active and formidable *bodily* presence -- flesh meeting flesh in an intense electrochemical exchange. I wonder if others would like to chime in on this.

Daniel Hill said…

I am late to this but working with sound my whole life and making abstract visual work that is influenced by sound: the reason sound/music moves us so much, I think, is because it is a pressure wave- literally pressing on our bodies. Also as a consequence of being a pressure wave, as opposed to the transverse wave of light (visual art), it is completely immersive, and potentially completely abstract.

Response to 3.6 (Deborah Barlow)


Taney’s question asks about how form might actively engage in the “religio-spiritual-ethical dimension.” Her question sounds rational and reasonable. But in my experience it is anything but.

I don’t want this to veer too far into the personal, but this is as close to home as it gets. Like someone born with six toes that are carefully hidden from public view in a good pair of shoes, I have had another conversation going on right from the start. “Mystic” and “spiritual intuitive” are outsider terms and aspersive, but there really isn’t a proper name for what this is. When you realize early on it isn’t normal, you find a sturdy pair of shoes and hope you can pass.

Maybe it is just the process of getting older that makes passing less interesting. And certainly there is more space regarding these issues these days, just as Daniel pointed out on Day 2:

“Re: mystic: This is a word I struggle with as it carries much baggage. The lure of the unknown- this fiery, passionate desire to understand that has driven us through the millennia holds a sense of mystery implicit. This is essential. I agree with you and yes, it is a difficult position to defend. Both (word and position) need to be expressed in a way that science can understand or contribute. Otherwise, it is too easily dismissed. However, I think we live at a fortunate time as interesting things are happening in neuroscience and consciousness studies for example. The near future may yield common ground atop which we may build.”

Aligning with science is not necessarily my primary goal. And this symposium has been full of reminders that knowing/being/consciousness exist outside the scope of current science practice, one that is still highly determined by the limitations of its current instrumentation.

Aside from winning science over, let me concentrate on what I do know: how an art practice comes into being by relying on an undefined array of influences, inspirations, guidance systems and visions. And given that I have been trying to articulate this for about 50 years—and feel I have been unsuccessful at making my point comprehensible—I will use the words of others to suggest some of the dimensions of the landscape Taney identified. These insights are more lucid than my own efforts would be.


“Given the vague, and sometimes trivializing, uses of the term in recent decades, I appreciate the artist Richard Tuttle’s comment to me on this matter: “What I want more than anything is a definition of spirituality that is trustworthy.” Indeed—and to be so it must necessarily extend beyond a focus on the self to a sense of our embeddedness in the larger context: the exquisitely dynamic interrelatedness of existence, the vibratory flux of the subtle realms of the material world, and the ultimate creativity of the universe. The cosmos is infused with an unfolding dynamic of becoming and a unitive dimension of being. Spirituality is the awareness of and engagement with that unity and those dynamics.”

--Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art


“Intuition is a feeling that comes out of total freedom, being one with cosmic energy. It’s knowledge before knowledge. It’s understanding before understanding…Intuition gives us new ideas and doesn’t always tell us where those ideas come from.”

--Axel Vervoordt (co curator, Intuition, Museo Fortuny)

“The artist lives this indescribable feeling that is inaccessible to words as a reflection of all that has been present, of what will be present, from the beginning and forever. Freed from the need to depict the visible world, the artist becomes the receptor through whom the echoes and reflections of an irrational elsewhere flow freely and take form.”

--Daniela Ferretti (co curator, Intuition, Museo Fortuny)

“When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells…


Drawing is a form of probing. And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself…


We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”


--John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook


“This is an exhibition about the intimate and the infinite: about the tiniest fruits of the earth and the stars above; about a single stitch, and the great web of creation; about the simple passage of a brush across canvas, and the unfolding eternity of being…it is the most human of urges to look to the heavens and contemplate our place in the universe, to try to find a connection between our earthly selves and the boundless expanse of the stars. Each work in this exhibition is an attempt to bridge this divide: to provide an intimate encounter with an ‘ancient endless infinity.’

If this sounds a little mystical, I would like to suggest that on the contrary, it is both profoundly human and insistently contemporary. The world in which we live is more connected than ever before…it is no surprise that ‘webs’ and ‘nets’ have become such fertile tropes for contemporary artists… for these are the operative metaphors of our age.”

--Henry Skerritt, curator of Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia


“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.”

--Albert Einstein

“The closer and more carefully we probe, the more [the universe] seethes with what looks like life—runaway processes driven by positive feedback loops, emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps, and always, as far ahead as we can see, more surprises. There may be no invisible creaturely “beings” afoot, either symbionts, parasites, or predators. But there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness.”

--Barbara Ehrenreich, Living with a Wild God



“We scientists are taught from an early age of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers. But artists…often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions…for many, the question is more important than the answer.

There are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind…The strong sense of the infinite, the belief in an unseen order in the world, the feeling of being in the presence of something divine are all personal.”

--Alan Lightman, theoretical physicist and author of The Accidental Universe


“A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden…


Weakness, fluidity, concealment, and solitude assume their place in a kind of dream world, where the sleeping witness finally feels safe to lie down in mystery.”


--Fanny Howe, poet


Jon Sakata said…

Deborah, this is my kind of running gleefully in the rain wanting to soak in every drop! Have a feeling we will be coming back to this post over and over and over again...

Taney Roniger said…

Wow, Deborah, what a wonderful compilation of quotes. Thanks so much for this, and I agree with Jon that we'll be returning to it quite a bit. But now I wonder: Since part of what we're addressing here is aesthetic form (and I agree with Charles Eisenstein that "aesthetic" carries an implicit and unwanted binary, so let's now just say "form"), I think we can dive further into your post and ask how *form* can draw us into the mystical experience. The John

Berger quote here reminded me of something I rarely say but do feel, which is that abstract form seems to me the most powerful vehicle of transportation into the spiritual experience. I'm sure I'm wrong on this - I'm just not sure exactly how. I wonder how others feel about this; I would love to be corrected by way of specific examples.

Deborah Barlow said…

Taney, in my experience transcendence is universal and also deeply personal. Some achieve it through devotion to a disciplined path or though the use of entheogens. Others find it outside the programmatic, predictable or determined. I became an artist because it is, as you have stated, a "vehicle of transportation into the spiritual experience." It is elemental to the making but also to the looking. I caught my breath the first time I saw your work, and I still do.

Karen Fitzgerald said…

First, many thanks for everyone's inspired energy to speak to so many thingly things.

In response to both Deborah and Taney, wondering about how form is perceived, and often used as a gateway to spirituality, "how it draws us into the mystical experience":

A spiritual experience is not some grand thing that has sunbeams flooding out from it, trumpets blaring, etc. It's not an "other" kind of experience. It's a daily kind of thing. And I don't think it's a happenstance: form triggers connectivity across a broad spectrum of granular thinglyness that is constantly present..

We know we are having a spiritual experience when there is a coherent quality to connectivity within our own perceptual system. I can't get inside someone else's system, and I'm not a scientist studying perceptual systems. What I can say about my own experience is that this alignment includes most everything that enters my conscious awareness: unconscious urges, intuitive understandings, concepts I've been puzzling over: all housed in some encompassing emotion. All this stuff lines up. It all lines up together, and understanding flashes along the spectrum. It leaves a distinct taste of connectivity. Sometimes on a grand scale. I think spiritual experiences are like stairs: they help the spirals of thinking and imagining we are each engaged with jump up a bit by gradually mixing in understanding. Without form there is no thingly affinity, just like without alcohol there is no physical drunkenness.

I like the idea of consciousness being embedded in all matter; that it does not arise after some magic moment of evolutionary complexity in the brain cells. Think of all the eons of thoughts nestled inside of rocks.

Deborah Barlow said…

Karen, I know you know Simic's poem, but it seems too apropos to not share the last stanza:

I have seen sparks fly out

When two stones are rubbed,

So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;

Perhaps there is a moon shining

From somewhere, as though behind a hill—

Just enough light to make out

The strange writings, the star-charts

On the inner walls.

Thank you for your words. They are resonant with my think/feel in this rich and mysterious zone.

4E Cognition and Beyond the Humanist/Post-Humanist Debate? (Arthur Whitman)

Furthering the relevance, raised by Taney and Sarah, of the contemporary cognitive and neuro-sciences to the possibilities of reevaluating the role of form and meaning in art (and the arts): I'd like to put forth the idea of "4E" cognition, recently popular in those fields. The idea, basically, is that human (and animal) thought is embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended. (I'm linking below to a short video by philosopher Shaun Gallagher, which offers a succinct account of each of these intertwined dimensions.)

I can perhaps be forgiven for the naiveté of my speculations here as a non-academic (I trained as a painter and am active as a newspaper art critic). But I think a brief consideration of these "E's" might help clarify some of my misgivings, raised tentatively in an earlier post, concerning the radical critique of humanism being bandied about here. (If we are challenging binaries here, I think the humanism/post-humanism dichotomy is fair game too, especially given the moralistic shadings being offered by some participants.)

The notion of embodiment, shared I think by everyone here, is one that clearly ties us to our creaturely, more-than-human natures. As I wrote earlier, "Our capacities for abstract and deliberative thought are rooted in those for perception and affect." I'd reckon as well that it provides directly for an at least modest human uniqueness (Gallagher, below mentions hands). I think it offers a challenge both to the rationalist-intellectualist view of the radically autonomous ego but also to postmodernist views concerning a radical decentering of self and agency.

Without going into detail, the idea behind embeddedness, enaction, and extension pertain to the fact that thought is an active process that takes place in an ecological setting--which for many species at least, is a socio-cultural as well as a narrowly physical one. We are in of our habitats and milieus. Again, and without wanting to draw a sharp boundary between humans and other animals, I would venture that what is most distinctive about homo sapiens is our elaborate and cumulatively extended cognitive ecology. I believe that this pertains to art as a human practice and I'm willing to argue further that it is not mere chauvinism to say so.

Shaun Gallagher's video Q&A, recommended.

Arthur Whitman said…

I'll add that I think "meaning" in art ought to be taken in the broadest--and deepest--possible sense, to encompass the most creaturely and sensual aspects, as well as the more abstract, symbolic, metaphorically, and discursively-elaborated ones. Why take anything off the table?

Deborah Barlow said…

Thank you Arthur for this clarifying post. This is a memorable phrase, "our elaborate and cumulatively extended cognitive ecology."

The Gallagher interview you included was succinct and very useful as well. (I was delighted that it took place at a Buddhist retreat.)

Taney Roniger said…

Yes, Arthur -- thank you for this. Until your post I had not been aware of the last two E's in the 4E model, and they do add greater depth to what we mean by the first two. And thanks also for the Shaun Gallagher video. I think it was Sarah who mentioned a book of his earlier. I'm looking forward to reading him.

As far as humanism and posthumanism go, I don't think anyone is suggesting that there's no *difference* between our own and other species. We certainly do have many distinct features (the opposable thumb, an extended cognitive ecology, a greater number of synapses between neurons, etc.). But then, other species have features and capacities that we can only dream of having! (Who wouldn't want to be able to fly, or explore the depths of the sea without technological augmentation, or communicate across vast distances with echolocation?) The point, I think, is that while we are in some ways distinctive, this in no way entitles us to treat the rest of the world as our dominion. It's our arrogance and sense of entitlement to which posthumanism objects -- and the devastation of our planet that these things have made possible. But perhaps you're speaking specifically about art, perhaps wanting to claim it as a solely human activity. The evidence against this is pretty clear (I highly recommend Carrie's book!). I suppose I would ask what she did earlier, which is why is it so important to you or anyone that art be ours alone? We may practice a different *kind* of art than, say, bowerbirds, and our art may have given us some magnificent achievements, but why does any of this have to mean that we can't share art with other species?

Carrie Rohman said…

I, of course, echo Taney's very cogent response here. It's the exclusivity tied to the arrogance tied to the hierarchies that troubles. And indeed, why are our differences so elevated in our minds, when other creatures have capacities that we could never dream of replicating? And again, what motivates our deep reservation about understanding artistic capacities as part of our evolutionary inheritance? To quote Darwin, the differences are of degree, not kind.

It comes to mind, just now, that some philosophers working on personhood as a legal category are arguing that cetaceans could be seen as *more* intelligent and evolved than humans, if we take intelligence to seriously mean the ability to thrive and flourish with others, in an ecosystem, without destroying it.

Also, I hate to do it (!), but even the opposable thumb is not a given and needs to be seen as part of our humanist hype. See Tom Tyler's wonderful book Ciferae: A Bestiary in Five Fingers, for a brilliant deconstruction of the humanist concepts of the hand, handedness, handiness (very much linked to cognition and creativity, think Heidegger etc.). Tyler contextualizes what Stanley Cavell calls "the romance of the hand and its apposable thumb." Cary Wolfe has also had an important hand (!) in debunking this through-line in continental philosophy, where the mythology of the hand is continually linked to speech, thought, world-making, etc.

Taney Roniger said…

Carrie, I will have to look into the Tom Tyler book! I remember your preference for feet and footedness in Choreographies, which was very compelling.

Re: the status of cetaceans: Did you know that in the United Kingdom the octopus is an honorary mammal? Talk about arrogance! I like to imagine the octopuses' response to that. I imagine it would be something like, Thanks but no thanks, you incorrigible humans! We're perfectly fine down here delighting in our chromatic displays and shape-shifting hijinks while your type roams the earth scorching and destroying. (And yes, Arthur, I say this fully cognizant of all the wonderful things we do too. It's just that our selfishness with regard to the planet is the urgent issue of the day!)

Arthur Whitman said…

A lot to unpack here, and thank you Carrie and Taney for your thoughtful comments. Re art and human uniqueness, a lot of course depends on how you want to define and elaborate the category--and clearly there's not much consensus in that debate (And yes, Carrie, I am intrigued by your book and will seek it out.) I am open to the idea of art as a more-than-human, perhaps animal kind.

That said, I'd reckon that art qua human activity is unique in ways related to what I've been saying about our extended cognitive ecology. Human artistic practices, in particular, involve the elaboration of style--individually and culturally--in a way that is historical and cumulative. Again, I'm all for more emphasis on the creaturely and immediately sensual and expressive dimensions of art-making. But that's not all that's going on here and it seems reductive to treat it as so.

I'll add that the capacity for reflection enabled by language and discourse add another layer to our understandings of art that loop back on our more immediate, sensual grasping of art. Are there excesses and limitations here? Yes, but we have to accept and understand our species-centric understanding and practice before we critique it and look beyond it.

Arthur Whitman said…

Re human anatomy and human uniqueness (sorry to go on about the latter, but it's inescapable and important to consider), what is most important (or it seems) about characteristics like the opposable thumb, bipedalism, and the enlarged cortex is precisely the extended cognitive niches they allow us to construct. That is, our uniqueness is not (so much) something inside us. It's something we make, or help make.

I don't assert the moral or cognitive or spiritual superiority of human beings. But species-specific interests and perspectives are not dispensible. We live in human social and cultural worlds and to see beyond this--particularly in a global, all-encompassing way--takes considerable acts of the imagination, a grasping of otherness that itself is a complex cultural achievement.

Dave Abram said...

Umm, I just want to lean in with a brief note of appreciation for what Arthur is trying to accomplish here ever so delicately, and with some real art, given that he's walking thru the minefield of a conversation carried by folks (myself included) who seem convinced that we've somehow freed ourselves from human-centrism (as if this two-legged bodily shape with its corporeal proclivities was not still at the center of our perceptual field, coloring every facet of the cosmos that we consider). Surely it ain't chauvinism to feel into and seek to articulate a few facets of the unique weirdness of one's ownmost form of embodiment, given that each creature bodies forth its own strange gifts. I mean it's surely kinda helpful (now and then? once in a blue moon? not all the time, for heaven's sake) to ponder the goofy habits and splendid biases we carry in common with others of our curious species, since if we don't ponder that conundrum we're liable to miss the outrageous otherness of the others - of octopi and orb-weaving spiders and drought-stricken aspen groves - construing them all through the unnoticed biases granted by our particular style of flesh. That being said, I hafta say how different it seems to inquire into the unique oddity of our form of animality not as a way to justify our dominion (or to license our inane impulse to objectify everything else and bend it to our purposes), but simply as a way to listen more deeply outward, as a way to better relate to all these other shapes and styles of radiant weirdness.

Arthur Whitman said…

Yes, well, I did promise Taney, in accepting her invitation, that I would play the role of skeptic and killjoy. I do feel compelled to deliver!

2.3-2.5 Response: Mind/Body Equivalence and the Aesthetic Form of Cognitive States (Daniel Hill)

For me as an artist, embodiment is a fundamental concept. Despite what a dictionary may or may not inform us about a word or term, we can occasionally (perhaps often?) construct idiosyncratic interpretations. This is even more the case with abstract concepts. When attempting to fit the roundness of tacit knowledge into the square holes of language, an insufficient lexicon is often revealed. Perhaps this is why humans developed the visual language of art in the first place, as a proto language to both discover and express knowledge.

 Decades of painting, drawing, and working with sound has led me to think of embodiment or embodied form as follows. Form is a consequence of process; process is the flow of a cognitive state in time. Aesthetic form is a visual artifact of a specific cognitive state. As we all recognize some cognitive states are better than others, hence a hierarchy becomes necessary. The creative mindset appears the gold standard, as solutions to all the problems we have ever solved and all the problems we are yet to solve, are within reach from creativity’s elevated and fruitful vantage. Cognitive states are essentially perspectives from which we have experiences as well as the ability to reflect upon them. Some individuals acquire perspectives that are paradigm shifting. History is replete with these innovators that managed to see the world from a slight, yet crucial shift of perspective. But fertile, creative cognitive states for our personal well-being are equally essential.

I have noticed, when entering a creative cognitive state, frequently it has been catalyzed by a sequence of bodily actions. My paintings require significant body movement as I hover over the surface with a squeeze bottle, carefully dropping a network of thick viscous paint lines one by one to the surface. The emergent form is a resultant of both body architecture moving in time and the cognitive state necessary to perform those actions for hours. The more body actions are encoded and sequenced within a system, the more they become a kind of language. We can think of certain kinds of dance, rituals, yoga, tai chi, or even meditation as kinds of body languages. Systems are valuable for they are not only key to making sense of our myriad and complex experiences, but they also enable complex relationships to be adaptable with a degree of precision.

 Neuroscience has shown what we do with our bodies has a consequence in the brain/mind. The body promotes a state of mind, the mind follows and in turn influences the actions of the body. A beneficial feedback loop is formed through an equivalence of mind and body. In this way, we can actually rewire our neural pathways. The resulting aesthetic form then is both embodied as well as an artifact of a creative cognitive state- creating the contextual environment for promoting and nurturing that state's sustained presence. This could be interpreted as a type of metacommunication or a kind of reading between the lines or visual inference promoting the context for specific cognitive states.

Taney Roniger said…

Daniel, so much to appreciate here -- many thanks. First, I like your take on aesthetic form as "a visual artifact of a specific cognitive state." I might add to that that, since cognitive states are always changing, form is a kind of record of the various states through which cognition passed during the creative process.

The second thing I want to address is your very apt description of the way bodily actions affect states of mind and vice versa. Taking this one step further, though, might we be ready to drop the body/mind distinction altogether and finally concede that it's all one system? After all, we now know that there are neurons in our guts, and even if there weren't, it's clear that "mind" isn't locatable in any one place but rather is a function of the interaction between things. (Gregory Bateson used a very compelling example to demonstrate this point. You have a man with an axe who's cutting a piece of wood. Is mind immanent in the man's body, immanent in his brain, or transcendent to both -- somewhere "out there"? The answer is none of the above: "mind" is immanent in the circuit man-axe-wood-man-axe-wood..., where man means body and brain as one integrated whole). Charlene uses the word "bodymind" as a way of bypassing the false dichotomy. Perhaps we artists should adopt that term? My feeling is that the more we continue to talk about how our bodies affect our minds (and I do it all the time!), the more we perpetuate the error we're trying to move beyond!

Daniel Hill said…

I love the term "bodymind" and am sorry I have not yet read Charlene's books (consequence of homeschooling during a pandemic!). I suspect that word will creep into my writing. As far as getting rid of the mind/body distinction altogether- I think we would lose something of great value, as making distinctions can aid in certain circumstances. This is the value of systems.

For instance, if one has taken to sitting all day in front of the computer, as many of us have during these days, there can result a general malaise or depression. As the mind might tend to be dulled or "off" in this state, a system can tell us what component to address. Whenever this has happened to me, I know it is time to get my body moving, as this is the most fundamental action- and therefore easiest- to take. In my art that body movement is a more refined one than going for a walk or run and it has finer syntax with a very desirable cognitive equivalent. The trick is perhaps not so much to move beyond these distinction as it is to recognize they are but parts of a much larger system. This recognition in practice can therefore lessen their dominance. So the distinction is made when the context calls for it. Avoiding obsessing over the distinction, like all habits, die hard.

Love the Bateson example! And this is coincidental as the term metacommunication is his also. When referring to types of communication, he distinguishes between action in context and action which defines context, the latter being known as metacommunication. In art the process/action is preserved as a simulacrum in aesthetic form, and action and form become interchangeable. (That's my take.) The point though is a visual inference of context for specific, desired states of mind.

Form is a Verb (Sarah Robinson)

In response to Taney's earlier request to elaborate on the idea of form as a verb.

1. Taney: How does this reconceptualizing change the way we experience art objects and, in your case, architecture? Because although we now know otherwise, our limited sensory apparatus tells us that objects are static -- paintings, chairs, mountains, or whatever: to our bodyminds these things seem utterly unchanging.

This argument is central to my forthcoming book, Architecture is a Verb (Routledge 2/21) which applies a variation of the 4E approach to understanding architectural experience. The work of the 19th century empathy theorists and in cognitive science has shown that all art is performance art. We experience not only the work of art, but the genesis of its making in our own bodies. Vittorio Gallese and David Freedberg showed how we simulate the slash marks on Lucio Fontana's canvases in our own motor repertoire. When we see etched stone, we simulate the movement that went into that act of making in our own bodies. The crucial shift in thinking moves from the all-too tired Cartesian "I think therefore I am," to Husserl's engaged "I can therefore I am." Our earliest knowledge of the world is through bodily movement, something that the biologist/dancer/philosopher Maxine Sheets Johnstone (The Primacy of Movement) has been arguing for decades. When we begin to imagine the world around us in terms of possibilities for action (an enactivist approach), new dimensions of dynamism suddenly open up. In Giorgio Morandi's shy vases, we feel ourselves being touched, we imagine sitting in the chair or the irritating discomfort of its shoddy design, instead of seeing a static mountain, we notice the veins of massive pressure that heaved it from the deep. We do not see the independent objects as much as we see the world according to the actions they might afford and possibilities and latent stories of their becoming.

2. Taney: I adore this idea of changing nouns into verbs (David Bohm proposed something similar many years ago, using the term the rheomode for this new way of thinking), but I'm having trouble imagining what it would do to our actual experience of the world.

I have also been inspired by Bohm's rheomode, in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order he points out that an obstacle to dynamic thinking is the subject-verb-object structure of sentences which implies that action arises in a subject and is exerted on an object. Why do we say, for example, that it is raining, instead of that rain is happening? To whom, exactly, does ‘it’ refer? This is but one example of how our language is unable to speak of ongoing processes. Yet in other languages, movement is taken as a primary notion and apparently static things are treated as relatively invariant states of continuing movement. In ancient Hebrew, for example, the verb was primary. The root of all lost Hebrew words is a verb form, while adverbs, adjectives and nouns were obtained by modifying the verbal form with prefixes and suffixes. Even the English words dwell and dwelling, like the word building, are both nouns, verbs and gerunds—their versatility demonstrates that both terms are implicitly connected to ongoing living processes. Calling attention to the movement initiated by the verb serves to correct this centuries-old deficit. This act of reordering attention forces us to reconsider the realities which the verbs describe and opens new possibilities for thinking in terms of active embodied engagement. Thinking in terms of living processes does not need to split them into bits. Divisions wither in the face of action. This kind of animism speaks to a time when poetry was not a literary genre but a concrete way of experiencing LIFE.

Carrie Rohman said…

Wonderful, provocative, thrilling! So reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari's insistence that becoming is a verb (perhaps this is your title's homage or partial homage, Sarah?). Some overlap here with my own emphasis on movement and dance: Deleuze and Guattari discuss movement as having an essential relation to the imperceptible, which they call the "immanent end of becoming, its cosmic formulation," as they think about how one can slip between and grow in the midst of things. My own claim: "Although the dancing body is not equivalent to pure affects, we can nonetheless extract valuable insights from the claim that movement has [this essential relation]... dancing ought to be understood as a privileged modality for becomings" (Choreographies, p 60)

Taney Roniger said…

Sarah, thanks so much for this fine elaboration. I'll have to go back and look at Wholeness and the Implicate Order, which I haven't read in some 25 years. Given all that you've said, I now want to imagine how we can begin to think about form in art as a distinct pattern or configuration of *forming*. Minding the error of the mysterious "it" that rains, it would seem a mistake to say that a form or material is "forming." If we change the syntax we could instead say that forming is happening, using of course more specific verbs to describe exactly what it is that's happening. Thus we might say of a Christine Corday sculpture: Melting, bending, pressing, oozing; radiating, metaling, iridescing, scorching; hardening, softening, expanding, contracting; curving, inviting, touching, relating; earthing, fleshing, dissolving, universe-ing -- leaving the "is happening" out altogether, as it seems superfluous. As you suggest, there are languages out there that are grounded in verbing. I'm thinking of the Potowatame language, which I understand is mostly verbs. I imagine it would be incredibly helpful to look closely at these languages of animacy and see how they're structured. But this is just the language side of things; the next question is how we can create forms that make us more aware of our bodies' innate mimetic tendencies, and of the dynamic nature of all matter and consciousness. I think there's a question in the next session on precisely this issue, but it wouldn't hurt to get started on it here!

Touching on the Divine (Stephanie Grilli)

I have become really interested in the ineffable in visual — both as a concept and as the ineffable itself. This is due to my being about to see and experience things in artworks to a such a high degree after studying art for fifty years. Maybe I’m slow, but I do sense that what is revealing itself to me is something I’ve achieved. I had a writing gig once that involved selecting artists sixty-five years of age or older and interviewing them. I asked each of them what they knew that they didn’t know when they started making art, and to a person they responded with some variant of realizing they knew nothing. I think the same thing applies to responding to art — that it’s possible to reside in understanding and break through to something not translatable into words, something transcendent.

We seem to agree that the mind/body dualism has had its day, but in the oneness and continuity of mind and body, that which we ascribe to mind can affect the body. This can be a framing of a physical experience or it can be a physical change in the body. If I sat in a chair once and was pushed over by a bully, I might have a different sensation upon seeing a chair than if I once had hot, mad sex in a chair. Emotion isn't something "raw" but an entanglement and learned. The relation of any individual and the physical world may be governed by universal principles but our experience of that relation is far more complicated. Then what do we do when we live in a society that is reductive, needs docile bodies, offers the “quick fix.” Maybe it’s a matter of recognizing the role that art has in teaching us how to feel, to experience being-in-the-world.

We now have access to a great body of works that we can view without attachment to their belief system or doctrine. As an independent art historian, I no longer am attached to the timeline that is typically taught, and I avail myself of how much art is now available online, delighting in artworks that speak to me as artworks. I can’t help but be taken by the limitless variety of what we have been able to come up with essentially are somewhat limited physical materials. One word that hasn’t come up yet in our discussion is “imagination,” and I would like to make that the power of imagination. If we want to consider art in its spiritual or ethical dimension, we are looking to art as something that allows us to experience something larger or greater than ourselves. How do we go through ourselves to get to something other or at least the not-I (to reference Fichte)? Rather than just the physical presence of artworks, there is a will to create that courses through the history of art that brings us with something touching on the divine.

Deborah Barlow said…

What a moving and exquisite tribute to the ineffable. You have been well trained in that which is effable, so that come from makes this even more moving to read.

For many of us, that's where we spend most of our time. But how easily it is dismissed or edited out of the script. The session with Charles Eisenstein tonight veered into these difficult and in some cases untouchable zones as well. So between listening to that discussion and reading this, I'll be honest: I am blissed out.

Also, this is a question I hope others will join in answering:

"One word that hasn’t come up yet in our discussion is “imagination,” and I would like to make that the power of imagination. If we want to consider art in its spiritual or ethical dimension, we are looking to art as something that allows us to experience something larger or greater than ourselves. How do we go through ourselves to get to something other or at least the not-I?"

I don't have a cogent response crafted right now, but that's worth pondering.

Thank you for all of this.

Taney Roniger said…

First, to Deborah's "You have been well trained in that which is effable..." How I love this, Deborah -- thank you. I think all university science departments should rename their curricula "Effable Studies." And yes, art history tends to traffic only in the effables -- so unfortunate, and so very misleading.

Stephanie, what a beautiful statement you've ended with here: "How do we go through ourselves to get to something other or at least the not-I (to reference Fichte)? Rather than just the physical presence of artworks, there is a will to create that courses through the history of art that brings us with something touching on the divine."

You pointed to this "will to create" in last night's talk with Charles Eisenstein (alternately calling it, in a phrase I love, the "will to form"). As an artist, I certainly consider this tapping into the "will to form" a distinct move beyond myself into the sacred. (It's not that there aren't parts of me that are sacred too, but what draws me more are the apersonal forces beyond me.) But what I love here is hearing that your experience as a beholder is a similar, if not identical, moving out into that largeness. That is exactly what I want my work to do to people -- to effect a self-denudation *and* a dismissal of me as the maker that transports us both outward into the Great Beyond. I suppose our imagination is the thing that makes this possible -- and no small dose of empathy and courage and humility and openness. But most art these days has no interest in any of this. I always feel like if people were to *experience* this just once, the glut of anemic, concept-heavy, beauty-denying art on offer would seem in comparison a trivial, soul-deadening pursuit.

Stephanie Grilli said…

I think as artist, beholder, writer there is something about practice (as in having one) that makes "moving out to the largeness" possible, which is also the case with religious/spiritual pursuit itself. There are the hours of plodding through until somehow the forms sneak up and surprise you. Actually it's the very sameness that allows you to go travelling into parts seemingly unknown. I don't know whether in these times we can understand this process as something transpersonal, but it does have the quality of someone else "taking the wheel."

It baffles me as to why art has become so reductive. I think of it almost as a form of iconoclasm at once denying pleasure and the full range of experience. I do think there are multiple reasons for the banishment of beauty beyond the confrontational character of avant-garde art, but I think it has something to do with the identification of a beauty as a construct used as a normative principle as well as beauty associated with the female body as the object of the male gaze. It's an interesting question in regards our "humanness" in that some make the case for it being a inherent, even evolutionary, need of our species...that it is in our biology and our wiring. How has "beautiful" become a hollow descriptor? How can it regain meaning as something constantly re-shaped and not predetermined?

Taney Roniger said…

Hear hear about beauty, Stephanie. My feeling is that (and this comes directly from Charles's talk) if more people understood -- no, *saw* -- the unfathomable beauty of fractal geometry, and if they realized that it's not just an abstraction but how nature is actually structured across all scales, beauty might make something of a comeback. Because however much the postmodernists want us to believe that all is relative, here's something that I'm willing to wager is universally considered beautiful. And it's the structure of reality! (I've argued before that those forms we see in cellular automata and the like also suggest the shape of consciousness. I could be wrong, but that's how it feels when I reflect on my own experience -- and it would *make sense*, would it not??)

Stephanie Grilli said…

That's why I referred to beauty as something that is not some Platonic ideal but something that is constantly re-shaped and not pre-determined. There is no doubt that beauty as the former had negative consequences as regards distinctions and stratification that extend well beyond the aesthetic, which has a lot to do with why it has become a dirty word; but that has ended up throwing the baby out with the bath in that the category itself has been rejected rather than taking it to be something that is far more dynamic. Perhaps the rejection of beauty has something to do with the rejection of form more broadly. The portrayal of other categories/qualities are tied to the standard of beauty.

Deborah Barlow said…

Taney, this is so well stated:

"That is exactly what I want my work to do to people -- to effect a self-denudation *and* a dismissal of me as the maker that transports us both outward into the Great Beyond. I suppose our imagination is the thing that makes this possible -- and no small dose of empathy and courage and humility and openness. But most art these days has no interest in any of this. I always feel like if people were to *experience* this just once, the glut of anemic, concept-heavy, beauty-denying art on offer would seem in comparison a trivial, soul-deadening pursuit."

I too am exhausted by "anemic, concept-heavy, beauty-denying art." Meanwhile we live in an "e) all of the above" world, one where creativity cannot--and should not--be legislated. But just as we populate our lives with friends who hold political/moral/social beliefs similar to our own, we can populate our visual lives with art and artists who are also seeking a similar--as so well stated by you--"self-denudation *and* a dismissal of me as the maker that transports us both outward into the Great Beyond." I had instant recognition of that when I first saw your work.

Finding cohorts and building solidarity is not a stance that is separatist so much as a "start where you are" strategy. Find like-minded artists and steadily build from there. A bit like this symposium!

Ever reliable Dickinson:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,

One clover, and a bee.

And revery.

The revery alone will do,

If bees are few.

Charles Eisenstein talk: full recording (Taney Roniger)

This afternoon we were honored to be joined by writer and speaker Charles Eisenstein for a provocative discussion about posthumanism, form, the locus of the sacred, and much more. Charles is the author of numerous books, among them The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, Sacred Economics, and Climate: A New Story. Many of you will know him from his many public speaking events, interviews, podcasts, courses, and discussion groups. What strikes me so much about Charles is his wide-ranging mind and his refreshing sincerity. It was a pleasure to have him engage us in discussion.

See the link below for an unedited version of his talk and the lively conversation among the panel that followed. (Alas, the first two minutes of the video were deleted, but it begins with Charles talking about the distinction between transhumanism and posthumanism. Enjoy!)

Link: Thingly Affinities: Charles Eisenstein.

Note: I encourage the panelists to post any questions or comments from yesterday's talk in this thread. Charles may be checking in later today, but either way there remains much to be discussed!

Daniel Hill said…

What an incredibly thought-provoking talk- thank you Charles! I am just finishing up your book “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible” and am intrigued with your concept of separateness or the "story of separation"- that story we need to replace with the "story of interbeing". In your talk when you spoke of purpose, I read that as a kind of meta-purpose of humanity. My initial thought was this might not be knowable right now. If we cannot know a meta-purpose, is the next order of magnitude knowable- that of individual purpose? As someone who has devoted their life to an immersion in creativity and also teaching it, I think this is possible. As a result of this immersion, I have no doubt that creativity is key in this puzzle. It seems a significant part of the issue as we wander in the ruins of Babel, is that we live in a societal structure that is still largely a top-down system. I think of the comparison of Gaudi’s Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona (top-down) compared with a termite mound (bottom-up). Could this top-down system itself be the prime instigator of our story of separateness? And if creativity (emergence) is the life force which brings forth structure and form, then humanity’s meta-purpose might be revealed by approaching it in a bottom-up way (termite mound). If creativity was in every human beings’ life- and I don’t mean just going out and buying a painting and hanging it on the wall- but a genuine disciplined creative practice- we could then bring art out of the museums and into our lives intimately where it should be. In this way, could our meta-purpose be discovered as an emergent property from the bottom up, by individuals engaged in an individually purpose-driven dance like the termites? Don’t worry if there is no time to answer- these thoughts and questions are just what came into my mind as you spoke. Again, many thanks and I look forward to checking out your other books.

Taney Roniger said…

Charles, as a big Mandelbrot fan, I was delighted to hear of your (apharmaceutical) psychedelic experience with his image. (I wonder, did you study with him at Yale? Much to my disappointment, he'd already left by the time I got there - how wonderful it would have been to meet him.) I find it significant that your transformative experience came from an experience with visual form. Many mathematicians talk about the beauty of equations, or the aesthetic sublimity of certain proofs (I'll never forget reading G.H. Hardy's waxing rhapsodic about the square root of 2), but to me there's a difference between this kind of pure abstract beauty and the kind that Mandelbrot gave us with his visual images. I'm wondering if you make a connection between your response to the Mandelbrot set and the latter's resonance with the forms we see in the material world. As an artist, this is exactly what moves me so about his work -- that, unlike those abstract proofs and equations that seem to hover up there in some other realm, as separate from nature as any abstract language, Mandelbrot's images are rooted down here on the earth -- a kind of geometry that brings the "geo" back into the word. In any case, I really appreciated that you began your talk with the locus of the sacred, which for me as a visual artist is directly aligned with the formal beauty of the universe.

Taney Roniger said…

And thanks for that, Daniel! Charles may indeed not have time to comment further, but I think we should all put our thoughts here in any case so we can continue the discussion.

Another quick thought: Early in the talk it was mentioned that posthumanism itself harbors an implicit human exceptionalism. I wonder if we can say more about that. Undeniably, there are many unfortunate things about the term itself, not least among them the fact that it makes humanism, and thus the human, the point of reference once again. But beyond the term, is there something implicit in posthumanism's attitudes and assumptions that inadvertently err in the same direction of what it seeks to move beyond?

Stephanie Grilli said…

Taney, I have been thinking about how post-humanism seems to be couched in "animals and other life forms do it too" and that this very much is anthropocentric. We are still the standard, when it should really be about how what other life forms possess or do is just as nifty. In my bringing up the creative force as something that is about the whole ball of wax, I was describing something that doesn't create a hierarchy and allows for differentiation. To be sure, the generative principle involves differentiation. What I am bumping up against now is consciousness, which I believe is where Arthur was starting to take us at the end of yesterday's discussion.

Taney Roniger said…

Stephanie, I think you're absolutely right: no matter how much we try to leave ourselves out of the picture, we're still always in the center as the unit of comparison! I rather wish we'd stop talking about ourselves altogether -- at least for a while, until we can get things sorted out. As far as consciousness goes, I myself see it as a property of the universe, with different "things" partaking of it (because I don't want to say "having" it!)to different degrees. It would be interesting to hear where Arthur stands on this. Perhaps you'd like to share some of your own "bumping up against"?

Stephanie Grilli said…

I keep coming to how we are saying something about our (human beings) place in things by the very act of positing this symposium's questions. That asking about our place in things suggests a certain kind of consciousness that may be unique to our species. I'm not sure if this was the gradations of mind that Arthur referred to.

Taney Roniger said…

That's probably true (although we have no way of knowing!). But for each one of our extraordinary capacities there are millions more out there in the rest of the animate world. Take photosynthesis, for example. We couldn't do that if we tried with the full heft of our intelligence! And yet plants do it so easily, so reflexively -- is this any less marvelous than our self-awareness?

Charles Eisenstein said…

What a rich comment thread. I am happy people appreciated my contribution. One further thought -- just because post-humanism might still contain a trace of human centrism, that doesn't mean that is a bad thing. Maybe one of the reasons we are here is to serve as the universe's implement to observe the universe from the unique perspective that the human being occupies. To use Bohm's language, maybe the universe or God wanted to see what it was like "to human".

I didn't meet Mandelbrot at Yale even though I did study mathematics there. He may have been before my time.

Charles Eisenstein said…

Before I posted, it asked me to click "I am not a robot." It is strange to be asked to take a philosophical position just to pass the CAPTCHA.

(That was my funny joke BTW)

Introduction to Session IV: Posthumanism Made Flesh (Taney Roniger)

Entering the seventh day of our dialogue, it’s become clear to me just how much more there is to be explored on our subject. While there are still four days to go, I’m already entertaining the idea of expanding our conversation in book form. In the meantime, however, I want to thank those readers who’ve offered their comments and to encourage more of the same on any of the material we’ve covered. As always, panelists too are welcome to continue threads from past sessions in addition to considering any new ones that might emerge over the next two days. The introduction to Session IV and its questions are below.

Session IV: Posthumanism Made Flesh: Forging a New Century with a Reoriented Aesthetics

Thursday, December 10 - Friday, December 11

Having laid the groundwork for a new posthumanist aesthetics, in this session we will consider what kinds of embodied forms such an aesthetics might give rise to and how they might be experienced by human (and perhaps nonhuman) bodies.

4.1    Are there certain kinds of aesthetic form that seem especially consonant with posthumanist values, and if so how might our human artifacts better embody them?

4.2    Are there certain materials that seem especially consonant with these values, and if so how can our human-made forms make better use of them?

4.3    The environmentalist Robin Wall Kimmerer has called for a "grammar of animacy" -- a new approach to language that will more accurately reflect the vitality of the natural world. Can something analogous be developed in the visual sphere?

4.4    Given that so much of our contemporary technology is the product of a distinctly humanist agenda, is there a role for technology in an aesthetics oriented toward the decentering of the human?

4.5    If visual perception is no longer reducible to vision alone, and if conceptual thought is no longer separable from the sensorium that gives rise to it, might this mean the erosion of the conventional distinctions between the various artistic disciplines? What might it mean for the tacit hierarchy that places the crafts and decoration beneath the fine arts and design?

4.6    By way of expanding current ideas about spectatorship, can we imagine alternative ways for our species to experience -- or indeed participate in -- aesthetic expression?

4.7    Is there a role for other species in posthumanist art?

Karen Treanor said…

Taney, I'm enjoying this forum so much. Thank you for making this happen. I've been reading so many fascinating discussions. I may have missed the answer to this question, but why is post-humanism necessary or desirable? As a species, we are the ones who will be making the art and pondering these concepts, you know? While we're considering the value of the middle vice, my turtle is silent. (i guess I should call her "The turtle who lives with me," lest I be deemed "hierarchical." Anyway, did I miss a discussion about WHY we should adopt a post-humanist mindset? Thanks again. I'm in awe of all the wonderful commentary.

Taney Roniger said…

Karen, I'm so glad you're tuning in, and many thanks for the comment. You might want to first check what I wrote about posthumanism on the symposium's homepage (you'll find the link at the top of the list to the right under "ABOUT"). After that, I might point you to Carrie Rohman's early posts, some of which address emerging ideas about art-making as a universal (i.e., non-species-specific) proclivity. You can find the early posts by going down to the blog archive or by clicking on "older posts" at the bottom right of the homepage. The whole first session might be of interest to you. If you still have questions, I can dive back in with some augmentation!

 first, by placing so much emphasis on the private subjectivity of the individual (arguably the very subject of most modern literature and art), and second by locating the sacred in some otherworldly dimension (basically the Judeo-Christian concept of God's kingdom thinly disguised). For this reason I think he's an excellent figure to bring up; now we can ask how a posthumanist spirituality might differ. I would argue that: (1) It's time to invoke a moratorium on all talk of private subjectivity, and (2) Instead of hurling it into some fictive elsewhere, let's bring the sacred down to earth and locate it in matter! And this takes us back to Jane Bennett and her apersonal "I." Can we reconceptualize the inner life as a dispersed, intersubjective, interdependent subjectivity that's radically entangled with its earthly surroundings, and an art of the spiritual that propels us outward, away from the private self, but this time into the Great Beyond of the real earth and cosmos?

Stephanie Grilli said…

I posted about Kandinsky a few days ago. From his psycho-spiritual perspective. there certainly was a life force that coursed through all things, and he believed that the tools of modern science would allow us to see the previously unseen, the numinous. In "Point and Line to Plane," he wrote "Only by a process of microscopic analysis will the science of art lead to an all-embracing synthesis, which will ultimately extend far beyond the boundaries of art, into the realm of 'union" of the 'human' and the 'divine.'

Taney Roniger said…

Thank you for that, Stephanie. I was thinking of his Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which seemed decidedly anti-material, as I remember it.

Deborah Barlow said…

Daniel, I am so glad that you shared the link to your video montage. While the story of how it came to be is deeply personal--your particular family circumstances, the cri the coeur of the artist in limbo, the use of a child's chalkboard and all the connotations that evokes, your tender weaving of delicate images and sound--there is still a visceral sense of a shared sensibility. We have all been living through a pandemic: together, alone, collectively.

(Just a note: What types of expressions will emerge and survive as emblematic and particular to this experience? One artist/curator friend has already started assembling intergenerational, globally sourced art made during the pandemic. From what I've seen so far, it is a wild range of work.)

On the topic of Kandinsky: Personally I keep him at arm's length these days. Like most artists who came of age in the 70s, that book was sacrosanct to me as a young person. Most of my teachers, trained by Ab Ex artists, held him with undisputed regard.

But now I view Kandinsky the theorist as more of a savvy strategist than a spiritual visionary. Aside from the claims made by Hilma af Klint art historians that Kandinsky might have pilfered af Klint's earlier ideas about pure abstraction by way of Rudolph Steiner, Kandinsky does not possess the humility and devotion to a higher consciousness that characterize a true spiritual visionary. (In today's terms he would be called a thought leader, a marketer, a mansplainer.) Kandinsky is historically important for bringing these ideas into codified form, but he is not the best source on the topic now with so many other options.

I am not dismissing the valuable commentary on his work from Taney, Daniel and Stephanie. The ideas laid out in that book continue to have a rich dimensionality that far exceed Kandinsky's personal story.

Steven Baris said…

Daniel: "The language of abstraction serves as functional vehicle of this inner world. Visual abstraction has the capacity of carrying no temporal, societal baggage and thus possesses the capability of being pure metaphor for those jewels of human experience that are ineffable." I'm not sure if I should be butting in to these discussions of the panelists, but what the heck. I like this sentence despite my and others' crits on specific terms and inferences, starting (as you point out) with the very term "spiritual." Also I would question the "no societal baggage" of visual abstract language, as, for example, Madison Ave. has rather successfully co-opted it for its own ends. As you know from our discussions, my interests tend toward the mystery artists' processes as much or more than the putative content. Everything about your chalkboard series--the drawings themselves, your description of the experience, and way you presented them--wonderfully manifests this.

Taney Roniger said…

Daniel, I just watched your video again, having not seen it since you posted it on Facebook last spring. Such evocative forms, and so perfect with the brooding and foreboding, slightly vertiginous music. The still image at the end should be a large-scale print. I can't help but note the resemblance between these forms and the ones Jon just posted!

Daniel Hill said…

Taney: My reference to Kandinsky does not mean that I adhere to all that you conjure of his ideas- most decidedly not. The reason for bringing him up is simply the notion that any human being can experience inner growth and a deeply meaningful connection to creativity through the language of visual abstraction and metaphor. I employed this kind of method during an extremely stressful time with the chalkboard drawings, and it worked very well for me. The meaning I found might be subjective, but the process is not.

If I can understand this post-humanist world (must admit to still sticking on this term) perhaps I am thinking of it from the opposite end. In my response to Charles, I referred to the distinction between a top-down system and a bottom-up. Our current top-down structure is based on a central authority evoking the zeitgeist which then is passed down to the next rank and so forth until you finally reach the average human. The best example, and maybe a big part of the source of this structure, is the Roman Catholic church’s hierarchy of the pope > cardinals > archbishops > bishops, etc.

I think many of our problems arise due to trying to fit a technologically advanced (and growing) society into this outdated antiquated top-down structure. The question arises: could this dominant top-down system itself be the prime instigator of our human centeredness? I think it plays a significant role as it amplifies the individual ego and promotes a lust for power. I think we cannot move past a human-centered worldview until we move past an ego-centered worldview first.

I think art goes back so far in human history that it is innate. But we are not using it properly. If every human being was taught from a young age how to have a deep immersive creative practice with, an inner world or spiritual component, we would likely find a lessening of the ego. Even if not, it at least puts creativity in a bottom-up, distributed position that allows the emergence principle a chance to do its magic. (Stephen Hawking called emergence/complexity theory the science of the 21st century for a good reason.)

If creativity was in every human beings’ life- and I mean a genuine disciplined creative practice- we could then bring art out of the galleries and museums and into our lives- intimately- where it should be. Then art would be with us in its making (verb) and in its presence (noun). In this way, our post human concerns could be discovered as an emergent property from the bottom up, by individuals engaged in personal meaningful creative practices.

This perspective functions a bit like the Mandelbrot fractal: the deeper you go, the more you find. And by going within, one finds the outer world manifested. Metaphors are the lingua franca of the realm. Also, this employs direct personal experience. If the concepts require the reading of books as the primary/sole source, I am afraid those concepts will be unlikely to take root. Direct personal experience should play a role, for it provides a practice of discovery, which eventually leads to the books. This perspective has as a goal to expand the realm of art to every human being- for which the resonance of direct personal experience is elemental, understandable, and achievable. Granted this will not happen unless we have some serious reformation in how art is both considered and taught.

Daniel Hill said…

Thank you Stephanie for that comment and quote. Interesting quote by Kandinsky. I have not read "Point, Line, and Plane"- maybe I should check it out. And its been hard for me to read everything here, but I really like some things you said and want to go back and catch up on your posts.

Daniel Hill said…

Deborah- thanks for the comment. I tend to agree with you about Kandinsky. When I was in art school, we were taught that he basically invented abstraction! But now we see Hilma af Klint was making incredible work before him. And we also find that abstraction exists in caves dating back tens of thousands of years. So Kandinsky seems less significant for sure. But he was a big influence when I was in my 20's and I see some of my students really connecting with his work as well.

As far as "What types of expressions will emerge and survive as emblematic and particular to this experience?"- do you mean the pandemic? Or my chalkboard experiment? If the pandemic- wow- that is going to be a big one! I am hoping it plays out in favor of the independent artist having more control over their career, exhibition opportunities, and collaborations. The old system appears to be breaking down, and I say good riddance! I feel like a broken record, but again, we need a more distributed system to the art world than the tired old top-down hegemony.

Daniel Hill said…

Thanks Steven- and you are welcome to comment! Indeed your point is well taken in regards to abstraction being co-oped by the upper echelon for its own ends. But if one considers visual abstraction as an artifact of specific cognitive states, the eye/brain which is highly sophisticated information processing duo can, with some effort, distinguish between the motive of a true artistic inquiry and one that isn't. I made sure to phrase that sentence as "has the capacity"- for it doesn't mean it always does! But for instance take the abstract painting in El Castillo Cave (The Tectiform Corner)- we have no idea what this is referencing. It contains little of its society other than context and materials (which does tell us quite a bit). But on a visceral, tacit level- it is a time machine and we receive information directly through the vast expanse of time. Can anyone say what that message is? No, but in my opinion all we need to know is that it exists. It emphasizes that this is a language- a lexicon- that stretches back thousands of years. The motive to make these paintings becomes the subject for us.

A curiosity of English grammar (Taney Roniger)

At the end of our conversation with Charles Eisenstein yesterday, there was an interesting exchange -- initiated by Wendy and picked up by Jane and Stephanie -- about the inadequacy of conventional English to express the relational and processual nature of agency. I want to bring it up again here because it’s so relevant to the current session.

I’m paraphrasing here, but at issue is the construction X does Y to Z (active subject - active verb - passive object), wherein something is always doing something to something else. This is a problem because it doesn’t allow for the more nuanced fact that subject and object are both active and passive; each acts upon and is influenced by the other, however subtly. Jane brought up the “middle voice” as a compelling solution. As she says in her most recent book, Influx and Efflux, “[The  middle voice] designates performances undertaken within a field of activities, rather than decisions of subjects who enter a field either to do something (active voice) or to be acted upon (passive voice).”

Perhaps Wendy, Jane, and Stephanie would like to pursue this further here (and of course I’d also welcome input from other panelists and readers!).

Stephanie Grilli said…

I must bring Nietzsche into the mix, specifically "On Truth & Lie in a Non-Moral Sense": "For between two absolutely different spheres, as between subject and object, there is no causality, no correctness, and no expression; there is, at most, an aesthetic relation: I mean, a suggestive transference, a stammering translation into a completely foreign tongue-for which I there is required, in any case, a freely inventive intermediate sphere and mediating force."

Wendy Beth Hyman said…

Thanks for raising the question, Taney. That's a great connection, Stephanie. I wonder if Nietzsche was in fact thinking of the middle voice here (he was of course a multilingual philologist), although there are other frames of reference for him in thinking about various non-causal forces (or forces so deeply in the cultural subconscious that "cause" would not be the right way to think of them).

After the session, Jane and I exchanged a couple of emails. As I said to her, it is so fruitful to think through the affordances of a middle voice, because its absence (in English) limits our ability to conceptualize non-hierarchical instantiations of transcendence. This led me to a related thought about metaphor theory--about all the relational in-betweens and affiliations that tropes like metaphor postulate. To unpack this a little, we generally think of literary figures as decorative. But tropes--like allegory or irony or metaphor--structurally rearrange the constituent elements of the literary microcosm. If I say X is Y, that is an ontological claim. That is why, for Paul Ricoeur, "tropes are indeed events." They remake meaning in their image.

Related to this is the question of vehicle and tenor. The vehicle is the comparand, the signified. The tenor is the signifier. (I tell my students to imagine the vehicle crashing into the tenor, causing it to vibrate). So, you could actually track the relationships expressed in some fascinating ways. The more capacious and imaginative writers are comfortable stretching the distance between vehicle and tenor, because they believe in a complex and interrelated universe. Their language, in fact, creates new neural and imaginative pathways among diverse conceptual constituents. A cliché is simply an ossified relation, rather than a generative affiliation.

Suggestions for Art Today (Arthur Whitman)

As readers of my previous post posts will know, I cannot claim to speak on behalf on poshumanism, nor tell what it might dictate for art. That said, I do have great sympathy for the claim, expressed by Taney in her various writings and in her questions for this symposium, that contemporary art must recover the sensual, the expressive, the embodied. While I take it that that is a common goal among the panelists here, I have some perhaps divergent ideas about how best to enable that that reflect my philosophical differences, expressed previously, as well as other personal experience and attitudes.

I am a newspaper art critic, of nearly fifteen years experience, working mostly in the "college town" of Ithaca, NY (hello to Werner Sun, my neighbor, if you're out there!). While academic thought runs deep in my family background and in my ongoing reading, my primary loyalties are to artists working outside of, or in some cases marginal to, academia. Art is not an academic discipline! Without engaging in broad brush condemnations of academic contributions to current thinking on the arts, I propose that most academic commentators on contemporary art are handicapped in understanding and accepting the broad range of what is, in fact, going on. The temptation to interpret and judge the importance of artists and artistic tendencies on the basis of specialized commitments and esoteric (to be unkind) theories is too strong.

Let me recommend that the best way to recover the sensuous immediacy of art is not to dictate, not in the name of supposedly radical and liberatory intellectual theory, what artists ought to be doing. I think rather, we writers and commentators ought to let practicing artists take the lead. And I while do I identify with modernism in the visual arts, I think the old military metaphor of the avant garde is dead, buried. Radical formal or stylistic innovation, while a generative goal back in the day, is no longer the wide open horizon that it used to be. I think most contemporary radicalism in the visual arts is false and that the posture of perennial oppositionality impedes what is genuinely valuable about art-making. So I think we ought to be open, at least in principle, to the whole gamut, rather than trying to stipulate or predict.

Arthur Whitman said...

Not sure if this would be appropriate as a proper post but since most of us are probably huddled around our computers all day, may I recommend this online lecture, tonight, by professor Stephen Asma, of Columbia College, Chicago? Asma is, I believe, a student of Mark Johnson’s and his writings on imagination and the emotional mind have been an influence on me.

Deborah Barlow said…

Arthur, You had me at hello.

This is so succinct, straightforward and clear. (Being able to write that way is a skill that gets well honed from writing for a newspaper for many years.)

And this is closely aligned with how I see things after 50 years of being an artist. Operating outside of popular careeristic considerations or trends, my fundamental intention from the beginning has been to connect with and explore domains that may not have names and may not be understood. But they are aligned with your description of "the sensual, the expressive, the embodied."

This passage is essential:

"I think most contemporary radicalism in the visual arts is false and that the posture of perennial oppositionality impedes what is genuinely valuable about art-making. So I think we ought to be open, at least in principle, to the whole gamut, rather than trying to stipulate or predict."

Like you, part of what drew me to Taney's inspiring writings inter alia was her determined advocacy for stepping outside the fruitless pursuit of "contemporary radicalism" and "perennial oppositionality." As your post has suggested, a significant gap exists between a languaged assessment/interpretation and "what is, in fact, going on." I'm here to bear witness that, in fact, something IS going on.

Deborah Barlow said…

PS. Arthur, the lecture by Stephen Asma looks very compelling. Two problems: It is at 7:30PM CET (1:30 EST) and it seems that tickets cannot be purchased in the US. If you have a back door option, please share it. I would like to be able to hear him.

Arthur Whitman said...

I was able to purchase a ticket from the US.

Deborah Barlow said…

Arthur, are you a member?

Arthur Whitman said…

No, I just went onto the website.

Deborah Barlow said…

All set!

Karen Fitzgerald said…

Thank you, Arthur, for these words. One of the very problems about the academic world is the nature of gatekeeping. Until recently, the exclusionary nature of "who" was admitted to teach in the higher realms relegated women to non-tenured positions, or no position at all. When I was completing my undergrad work, there was a dearth of women to work with. That continued into my MFA work, where one of the old white men suggested that I get in touch with him when I did something interesting.

I'm are not here to air old grievances, but that basic mechanism of gate-keeping has also shut out the narratives (cultural, aesthetic) of many others. Artists who teach below the higher realms suffer greater indignities. Who cares about educating kids? Yet, unless we work to open imaginations at all levels, the kind of empowering of a post-humanist intellectual under-girding is going to take longer, longer, longer.

What is tremendously hopeful about the broad conversation of this conference is the welcoming into the visible realm so many new ideas. Parsing them in connectivity, relationship, and expanded qualities is not just thrilling, but again, needed. Taney, your work in this regard is a breath of fresh air. And it fits. The wider globe is filled with similar awakenings. Our place is doomed unless and until we see our place with a new clarity.

Modernism opened us all to the visual language with form at its heart. Innovation for innovation's sake has proved to be vacuous time and time again. It takes work to grow our own "mycelial networks'' that root our work within the wider conversations where it can take its place. We require the whole gamut for that.

Taney Roniger said…

Arthur, Deborah, and Karen - many thanks to Arthur for initiating this thread and to the two of you for following up so vigorously. Everything you're saying is so important to the larger vision of this project. While I encourage all of you to continue exploring (and I too plan on chiming in later today), this post speaks so directly to our final session that I might want to repost it on our last day. It will be an excellent way to wrap things up.

Taney Roniger said…

PS - Would any of you be willing to watch the lecture Arthur mentioned tonight on Zoom and record it? I want to see it, but I'm not going to be able to attend live.

Deborah Barlow said…

I will record it Taney. (It starts at 1:30pm EST BTW)

Karen Treanor said…

Spot on, Arthur Whitman!

Stephanie Grilli said…

I would suggest that the aspect of "innovation for innovation's sake" that is associated with modernism wasn't necessarily the goal or motivation of many modernist artists. Many wanted to create an idiom that would usher in a new age or serve as a collective organizing principle...whether they were a Constructivist in the midst of an actual revolution or a mystical Symbolist who espoused a "priesthood" artists. In many respects, we can speak of modernism as a visionary movement, which did end up being represented as the formal innovations of select "visionaries." To be sure, Kandinsky backdated his paintings so that he could be considered the first abstract painter, but he had a mission that was much larger than "be the first kid on your block to own the latest gadget." I have been struck by how this sort of mythologizing has persisted. Consider the recent exhibition of the paintings of Hilda af Klint in which the main thrust seems to be how she preceded Kandinsky and other contenders for the title of First Abstract Painter with little attention paid to her mystical search for a vocabulary to make the invisible visible.

Deborah Barlow said…

Thank you Arthur for alerting us to the lecture by Stephen Asma today. It was such a remarkable and rich journey with him.

Arthur Whitman said…

Yes Stephanie, I think that that is very much true. And in some, perhaps attenuated way, it's still true for many contemporary artists working in a (broadly) modernist idiom--for whom I consider myself something of an advocate. The innovation for innovation's sake narrative is or was a useful myth, carried over to some extent in postmodernism, and I think it was largely generated by critics and theorists rather than working artists. It served the goal of defending and institutionalizing modern art at a time when many (probably most Americans until the sixties) were skeptical if not hostile. But that battle was more or less won a while ago.

Arthur Whitman said…

Taney, thank you for expressing your sympathy for what I'm saying here. I'd be honored to have it reposted (perhaps with some kind of elaboration or reframing?) and I look forward to furthering this line of thought.

Let me address questions 4.1 and 4.2 more explicitly, and apart from my previously expressed reservations concerning "official" academic posthumanism (I have others). Perhaps this is an exaggerated concern. But I am very wary of having another top down doctrine that tells artists what they should be doing or what counts as "relevant." I think it's time to embrace a genuine pluralism where all forms and materials and styles, new and old, are on the table.

I enjoy the work of Thomas Saraceno and other proponents of the new biomorphic art. I also happen to think that there are some very good plein air impressionist landscape painters out there. The audiences will be different but they are both part of my vision of what contemporary art is and can be.

Arthur said…

Deborah, I'm glad you enjoyed the lecture. I'd love to see your recording if it's available--particularly as I missed the first minutes!

Deborah Barlow said…

Arthur, I didn't end up recording it myself because the MIND Foundation will be sending it out to everyone who paid to watch. When it arrives I will gladly share it with you.

Arthur Whitman said…

A version of the lecture is available here:

Linda said…

Thanks for this, Arthur. Christine’s talk made me wonder if the discussion of art can be non-humanist, more than if the making of art can be.

I think what the panel was suggesting when they pondered “where was the art” in Christine’s bolt, is that human consciousness acting upon matter is the key ingredient to matter becoming art. It seemed that only when Christine explained her concepts backing it up was the bolt accepted into the category of art. Without her explanation, the bolt might have remained exiled from the status given by that word, because it was shaped by utilitarian need, it was a duplicate.

To my mind, this is what has been so human-centric about contemporary art. But is the human centered-ness in Christine’s activity or those who observe, discuss, and qualify it?

Christine sometimes spoke of the material she works with as if it had its own life and consciousness, and the image I got was of Christine and the materials becoming a third consciousness together. It made me want to know more about how the final form of her work is come to- does she begin the process with knowing what the final form will be, or do the materials contribute input to the shapes they become? Is Christine transformed by the materials as much as the materials are transformed by Christine? Rather than speaking of Christine as the sole initiator of the project, is it possible to see the materials as having initiated Christine into helping them become a new form? I think of Michael Polan writing of how plants cultivate us to cultivate them. I think many artists have the experience of feeling manipulated by materials they are drawn to work with, but this is probably not discussed academically because it gets too.... mystical. But if thinkers are exploring non-humanist perspectives, it might be an exciting experiment to wonder if materials perhaps have a desire or destiny themselves.

I love seeing how the panel is so beautifully weaving all these conversations together into new thoughts. What an exciting symposium this is!

Taney Roniger said…

Thanks so much for your comment, Linda. What you say about Christine's work resonates so strongly with the kind of inter-agential subject-object relationship we discussed in some earlier posts. (If you haven't read Jane Bennett's new book, Influx and Efflux, I highly recommend it -- it's an exploration of this very subject.) I think we need to abandon those old fears about accusations of mysticism, or animism, in speaking about these things. It seems clear that even if we're not willing to grant that inanimate matter has consciousness, it does exercise *some* kind of agency, and that different materials engage with us in different ways. It's helpful here to remind people that we ARE matter, that we're made of the same stuff as Christine's metals, Noguchi's stones, and a carpenter's wood! I'd be willing to venture that all artists who work closely with materials are animists to some extent. They may not be willing to say so in the heady atmosphere of today's art world, but when they're alone in their studios I doubt they're the only living beings in the room.

4.7 Is there a role for other species in posthumanist art? (Sarah Robinson)

Perhaps it is a feature of our Western perspectival mentality to want to boil things down to their "true essence" or to delve into the "core" get to the Truth or to be ever on the hunt for the Center. This habit is manifest in the reductive tendencies that keep repeating themselves by substituting different names: "it all comes down to genes," or the nucleus, or the brain, or bacteria and then focusing on that spotlighted aspect of life to find the key to the rest. These habits are so deep-seated that they remain unquestioned. The ubiquitous term "seeing through the lens" of something to understand another thing in its terms, is symptomatic of a mentality that must narrow the world to the circumference of a lens. This kind of mentality cannot deal with, much less understand relationships and interdependencies. Opening to other kinds of life expands the imagination and possibility. Perhaps the center is everywhere, truth is everywhere, intelligence is everywhere in different forms, voices and languages, and immersing our own consciousness in the rhythms of other kinds of consciousness is one way for us to move beyond our narrow perceptual habits.

Paul Valéry wrote, “To the spiritual eyes, the plant presents itself not just as an object of humble passive life, but a strange will to join in a universal weaving.” This strange will to weaving seems like a good way to think beyond the container/contained model. Life does seem to weave. In this spirit, the artist Diana Scherer makes living textiles from plant roots, the architect Niklas Weisel creates vertical textiles that grow food from ugly skyscrapers, the artist/architect Tomás Saraceno collaborates with spiders, who spin three-dimensional webs that cosmologists study for insight into the cosmic web in which our galaxy is held. This strange will to weaving does not concern itself with categories but with connections.

Deborah Barlow said…

This is so exciting and provocative Sarah. You are the one to bring this forward.

As an ancillary note to some of the mentions made in your post, my niece's partner Joao Costa is a research assistant at the Mediated Matter Research Group, part of the MIT Media Lab. He has been collaborating with silkworms and bees to develop fabrication processes and design objects. Most recently (just as Covid took hold) many of these investigations were on display at MOMA.

His website: Mediated Matter Research Group: 

Taney Roniger said…

A "will to weaving": Sarah, I love this so much -- thank you. There's so much to say here, but first, to the container/contained model. I'm thinking now specifically about form, about how we can reconceptualize the erstwhile form/content dichotomy not as a unified *thing* whose meaning is enfolded in the thing itself, but as a *doing*, a conative force(ing) -- a willing and leaning whose mode of moving is weaving. While this is clearly applicable to any form that literally grows (as in your examples, which I must look into -- how fantastic!), a more nuanced understanding is needed in applying it to static form. What will it take to change the way we experience static form so that our attention attunes to the dynamic nature of perception?

The examples you offer make me think of a wonderful show I saw last year at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York. It was all about how contemporary designers are using biomimicry to create ecologically oriented, mass-producible urban structures. What fascinated me (beyond the ingenuity of the ideas) was how incredibly beautiful the designs were. The forms, the materials -- they were just stunning. While moving through the show I had a profound feeling of aesthetic empathy, of fleshly identification, with these many different kinds of forms and materials -- and indeed also one of biochemical alteration. So it seems that even when there is no *actual* growth happening, one can experience form as being truly alive.

Again, so much to think about here. I might have to post some images, both of the examples you mention and the works from the Cooper Hewitt.

A Reflection: Air to Flesh to Biomes to Bones (Jon Sakata)

In our last performance in Denmark, my wife and I had the opportunity to program music by the Danish modernist, Gunnar Berg (1909-1989). What attracted us to his work was how he viscerally enmeshes music with crystallography and bacteriology (inspired particularly by the work of the 19th century scientist Georg Theodor August Gaffky). His vitalist, atonal music is populated with ‘microstructures’ (microscopic sound entities) that seem to eschew any ‘logic’ of organic growth models that previous composers had explored and developed over the past millennium; rather, the microstructures at times spurt forth and spread, and even detonate to unleash, hosts of further startlingly novel, un-anticipatable structures/entities (whose gradient of temporalities, scales of extensivity/complexity/intensive magnitude, and relational dynamism vary radically).

What is it like to live with, perform, share Berg’s microbial/mineral music via our favored technological tool (and spiritual prosthetic)—the piano? We like to say that it is music that vehicles air through flesh to intimately vitalize and converse ‘with-/in’ biomes and bones...

[...whose biomes and bones we leave unspecified...]

Part of Gunnar Berg’s compositional practice-process-imagination was to draw diagrammatic and pseudo-axonometric ‘figures.’ While less heterogeneous, multi-scalar, ‘difference’ generating, and symmetry-breaking than his music—here are a few (with gratitude to Jens Rossel of the Gunnar Berg Working Group for providing these images):


While I regret having missed Charles’ talk live, it was kewl to see the long dive into the Mandelbrot set and to hear Charles’ deep psychedelic experience with the iterative spell that Benoit’s generative mathematics prospered.

I had the pleasure to sit around the dining table with Benoit a couple times when he and his wife had moved to Cambridge. He clearly was affected by the years of how mathematician peers, the mathematics field, shall we say, came to look beyond him and his work. It was sad. I mentioned to him a recent article I had read detailing the then research and testing going on in France implementing Sierpinski pyramids into sound barrier walls lining highways; how the research was indebted to his work both for its acoustical application ‘trapping’ sound waves in the labyrinthine scales of self-similarity AND its aesthetic beauty. Fellow diners chimed in about how his work had been applied in a spectrum of other fields and forms outside of his own. He knew of some of these applications (and was directly involved with a few); but certainly, not all of them. And

With the latter, it was beautiful to see his curiosity but also critical problematizing animated with such glee and keen inspection to consider the potentials and challenges each application might pose.

The conversation turned toward the music of Bela Bartok. We discussed Bartok’s self-proclaimed ‘trinity’ of Nature-Science-Music and his fascination with pinecones, sunflowers (his favorite flower), and other bio-forms as well as application of Fibonacci’s ‘iterative-growth’ sequence. The host of these dinners had just finished a spectral analysis of a solo violin work by Bartok revealing how fractality is found from sub-melodic, to phrase, to overall design of the movement. With this, Benoit just sat back, grinned widely, his eyes became globes...

Deborah Barlow said…

For those of you who are new to the weavery and magicizing that is Jon Sakata, welcome to a world that began for me 5 years ago when Jon and I, with other Exeter artists, collaborated on an exhibit called Clew. Ever since our first meeting in my studio, I knew we were signed up for a lifelong connection. The scope, depth, surprise, intelligence and languaging that happens with every meeting is on full display here. And to hear him play. Well, that's an invitation to another realm, with no entheogens needed.

And to you Jon: This one is another keeper. Whoa.

"What is it like to live with, perform, share Berg’s microbial/mineral music via our favored technological tool (and spiritual prosthetic)—the piano? We like to say that it is music that vehicles air through flesh to intimately vitalize and converse ‘with-/in’ biomes and bones..."

Charlene Spretnak said…

(In response to Jon)

Thank you for sharing that lovely story about the dinners with Dr. Mandelbrot. When any of us send out an artwork or book or article into the world, we eventually encounter not more than a small fraction of all the people who saw or read it. Our work is as pollen scattered on the winds, sometimes alighting such that a fertile cross-pollination emerges. It's always gratifying to hear from one of the people for whom the work sparked new possibilities. I'm glad that Dr. Mandelbrot was made aware in his later years of what your fellow dinner guests conveyed to him.

Taney Roniger said…

Thanks indeed, Jon. I've been thinking about Mandelbrot since Wednesday night, recalling with fondness having read his autobiography some years ago. It's always struck me as odd that

fractal geometry didn't become more mainstream -- or at least not mainstream enough for it to be taught in high schools and the like (how I would have loved that!). But in light of this symposium, it occurs to me that there might be a resistance in mathematics analogous to that against form in art -- namely, a feeling that since Mandelbrotian geometry is visual, earth-oriented, empirically observable in the material world, it is associated with the feminine, the animal, etc. etc. -- and thus, as is form in art, considered "lowly." I can just imagine the unease of those male mathematicians who, looking out at as from the heights of their impeccable ivory towers, would like nothing less than to be sullied by anything trafficking among the "lowlies."

Jon Sakata said…

Thank you Deborah, Charlene, Taney, each and collectively for your responses...

Taney, yes, the "lowlies" and what is worse for the ivory tower brigade is when something has usefulness! Yikes, heaven forbid something has application and reach and relevance! Let's keep sullying then; better yet, what better expression of form is there than to sully the conventions and oppositionality with incessant connectivity and what Debussy called "the most peculiar quality of music -- magic."

Charlene, your "Our work is as pollen scattered on the winds, sometimes alighting such that a fertile cross-pollination emerges" is now handwritten (in permanent ink) upon our office door (not to mention forever in our hearts)!

Deborah, little did we know that Clew was but the entryway into our joint labyrinthine wandering together, a commitment to get lost so that silly ball of yarn someone left behind brings us not return but the material excess to weave and weave and weave spell and strangeness, and to venture further deeper into the unknown...

Changing the Subject (Stephanie Grilli)

As a university professor, I taught a seminar “The Self as a Work of Art.” Modernist art is usually viewed in light of the search for self-expression, and the premise of the course turned that on its head. The self itself is a modernist concept that came to be around the late 17th century and the models of selfhood that subsequently developed partake of the visual aesthetic at that given time. So it started with John Locke and his tabula rasa alongside William Hogarth’s series “The Rake’s Progress.” The notion of self relies on the creative principle: we shape ourselves in a continual becoming, and the ideas and influences on that process of shaping have changed. Our selves are not fixed perceiving entities like a fixed star in a swirling cosmos, and they are not distinct from our acting upon any other phenomena. “Subject” is another “object.”

My interest in teaching this course was trying to encourage students to become more creative in becoming themselves. Sometimes I ended the course by showing Woody Allen’s film Zelig about a character who was the “human chameleon.” It seemed to me that the vast possibility of selfhood had become an operation of “fashioning after.” The last time I taught the course was before the selfie in which tropes reign supreme. This is not to say that critics did not despair of “hollow men,” “one-dimensional man” or “waxworks” in times gone by. It’s more a matter of the social and cultural factors that diminish the creative principle of selfhood seem to be winning, but perhaps it also aligns with the diminution of the model of self in art-making.

That assertion may seem ridiculous on its face in that the art world seems to be all about identity issues. But I would argue that identity is about something quite different from self precisely because it removes us from the aesthetic. I don’t shape myself. I find my identity, and I find it among the various pre-packaged models available today. Whereas artists in the past may have been the bulwark against an increasingly mechanistic world, many artists and critics would have us abandon the imagination in favor of narrowly defined human taxonomies. Generation creativity implies differentiation, but we have become political/economic entities gathered in a limited number of groupings. It is not the subjective that is to blame for encasing us in our humanness. I suggest that it is subjectivity that can be the vehicle (how’s that word choice?) that can extend our sense of being in the world to ever-widening awareness.

It struck me during Christine Corday’s talk that no matter how much she deferred to a system how much of her self was still present. Even though she abandoned painting as evidence of the artist’s hand, she made any number of choices, and it was those choices that prickled and delighted us. The way out of a solipsistic, narcissistic subjecthood is encountering and entertaining the integrity (in its double meaning) of others in their multiplicity (rocks, trees, birds, bacteria…).

I agree with Arthur and Deborah. There is a distinction between the art that may be getting shows and galleries and artists getting grants and residencies and the art that many artists are making. In running a conversation series for the art community in Denver, I know there is frustration among artists about what decides whether an artist is “relevant’ (there’s another symposium in that word). Years before, I curated a show of contemporary Taos artists, and it was interesting to see such strong, individual work by artists who had chosen to live in an isolated community away from NYC or LA with its own center of gravity and its constant reminder of ongoing human history (Taos Pueblo) in a cosmically resonant setting.

Two years ago, I curated a one-person show in Denver of the paintings of Margaret Pettee Olsen, who happened to begin her creative life as a dancer. Her gestures recall the vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism, but she works with refraction, dissimilar actions and strategies, as well color bars and floaters that partake of  boundlessness, and sensation. With reconfiguring planes and light-reflective media, the paintings resist any coherent reading and are insistently perceptually interactive — to use Taney’s phrase, decentering the human.

Deborah Barlow said…

Stephanie, This post has so much I would like to respond to, way more than I can put in a comment. But I thank you for closing in on essential thinking/feeling that is so intimate to my art making life.

I resonated so redolently to this:

"I suggest that it is subjectivity that can be the vehicle (how’s that word choice?) that can extend our sense of being in the world to ever-widening awareness."

And then you move to Christine Corday, how "no matter how much she deferred to a system how much of herself was still present."

That was followed by this powerful line:

"The way out of a solipsistic, narcissistic subjecthood is encountering and entertaining the integrity (in its double meaning) of others in their multiplicity (rocks, trees, birds, bacteria…)."

Speaking personally--and I use that term intentionally with its many meanings--my art practice takes place in that spectrum between the intensely personal/subjective and the exquisitely incomprehensible cosmic/unitive. But the starting point is highly subjective and personal to me. I emphasize "starting point" since embracing the rest of that spectrum is, as you have suggested, so necessary.

Many of us--like your Taos artists--have found centers of gravity that operate from a place that has almost nothing to do with market trends and international art developments (after drugs, art is the largest unregulated market in the world after all.) And we are, in our own way, tapping into our own versions of the "cosmically resonant setting" you experienced with the Taos Pueblo. Like Salmon Rushdie's metaphor of a sea full of currents that, like stories, can be found just by reaching your hand in, the multiplicity and exquisite expansiveness of our world is everywhere. Dive in.

And how grateful I am that you included images from Margaret Pettee Olsen. Her work is full bodied, complex and compelling.

On the question of human uniqueness: link to an essay by David Abram (Taney Roniger)

In light of the question that's come up several times in our dialogue about the uniqueness of our species, I thought I'd share a brief essay by fellow panelist David Abram that addresses this issue. When I first came across this essay several months ago I found the argument he makes beautifully compelling. Reading it again now, I am no less convinced. I hope you will have a look:

Abram essay:

David will be giving a live Zoom talk for us tomorrow (Saturday the 12th) at 4:00pm EST. Although he will be speaking about other matters, I'm sure he would be happy to engage any questions about the essay.

Arthur said…

Yes, I quite agree--and beautifully stated.

Response to 4.4. Concerning technology and decentering the human (Jon Sakata)

Threading the earlier posts concerning 4E, particularly 'extension,' and Taney's prompt concerning technology and decentering of the human, I'm recalling McLuhan's critical nugget/warning about how each new form of technology (whether a tool or other technological enhancement) brings with it some level, or kind, of compensatory "auto-amputation" (or self-amputation) -- a loss of capacity, ability, faculty, functionality, etc. As my index finger pokes and beaks and swipes the touchscreen to write this post, think of the crude impoverishment of tactility that I'm exercising...[quick, back to the piano!]

With humor and alarm, J. G. Ballard's 'personal computers' entry in his Project for a Glossary of the Twentieth Century also comes to mind: "Perhaps unwisely, the brain is subcontracting many of its core functions, creating a series of branch economies that may one day amalgamate and mount a management buy-out."

In the context of what we've been exploring in this Symposium, McLuhan's "auto-amputation" and Ballard's "subcontracting of functions" raise for me a dark curiosity: if the human species is incessantly committing such amputations and subcontracting (unknowingly, of course) at who knows what rate, then I'm wondering out loud if "decentering the human" may be coming down the pipeline in a way that is less willed action and transformative shift; and more on the lines of blind self-extinguishing and sensorial sewering? Clearly, a very different form of post-humanism.

I'm just beginning to think about this as I write and have no (clear) sense about this; but hopefully others here have been and can share their perspectives on this as I end this improv of a post…

On Technology and Contemporary Art (Arthur Whitman)

Taking off from Jon's post in response to 4.4: some disorderly thoughts of my own on the role of technology in contemporary life and contemporary art.

I'm not familiar with McLuhan's account of "amputation" but I'd be more inclined to say that new technologies create attenuations or displacements as well as amplification of ability (and desire) rather than the kind of absolute loss that his metaphor seems to imply. We can, at least in many cases, still recover something of the older ways of doing things. "Old media" tend to stay with us, though they may seem to some to lose their "relevance."

I think that while the use of tools and artifacts is common to many animal species, homo sapiens has taken this to an extreme. This has both advantages and disadvantages; these are hopelessly entwined and we have to face both. Short of a global apocalypse (though that is certainly imaginable), we are caught up in technology and technological society. As Jon suggests, humor and absurdism are a big help.

I just came across an old essay, "On Transcribing and Superliteracy," by the Darwinian aesthetician Ellen Dissanayake, in which she offers a humorous reflection on her "day job" as a transcriptionist as a means of reflecting on the differences between oral and literate cultures and the ways hyperliteracy has distorted contemporary literary and language theory. Some of her language from the article also appears in her wonderful 1992 book Homo Aestheticus, which offers a "species-centric" view of art as a unique human adaption. I'm on the fence about the art as uniquely human (it depends, as I said earlier, on how one defines art--a tricky question for certain). I'd have to revisit her ideas at greater length but I think they are worth taking seriously in the light of questions being raised in this discussion. (As an evolutionary thinker, she is, of course, well-informed about the deep continuity between humans and other animals. But perhaps she is still too much a "humanist.")

Writing, painting, traditional musical instruments--these are all technologies too, with their associated gains and losses (though mostly gains, or so one would like to think). Concerning computers (briefly discussed by Dissanayake as writing tools, interestingly enough, from the perspective of 1990), I think they are a perfectly legitimate means for making art. Hopefully it's not a mere prejudice, based on my background as a painting student, nor sheer backwardness, to suggest that more traditional artistic media have a special role today in offering a counterweight to the effusions of our digital culture. If memory serves (I don't have the book on me), philosopher Paul Crowther concludes his chapter on digital art in his The Phenomenology of the Visual Arts by affirming the primal necessity of painting and other established artforms. These connect (and reconnect us) to our bodies and our senses in ways that images on a screen--even virtual reality immersion--cannot.

Sarah said…

I agree that Ellen Dissanayake's work is important to this conversation. Her most recent book, Art and Intimacy, that grew out of her work with the child psychobiologist, Colwyn Trevarthan, argues that art originated in and is an elaboration of acts of love and care and its cultural/biological role has always been to reinforce interpersonal and social bonds. When understood in this way, art is no longer a solely human enterprise. We are clearly not the only creatures whose very existence depends upon the mutual bonds of relationship and the continual reinforcement of those bonds.

I agree too on your interpretation of McLuhan and would use the word atrophy to describe how unused organs of perception lose their strength from lack of use like muscles do. I have found the work of Jean Gebser very stimulating in terms of perceptual bias, some claim that McLuhan took many of his ideas from Gebser who anticipated his theories in germ by at least two decades.

Arthur said…

Disanayake claims art is uniquely human in her earlier book, although a lot of what she says there suggests otherwise. I haven’t read Art and Intimacy (yet) Does she change her mind there?

Arthur said…

I of course have great sympathy for her general thesis.

Taney Roniger said…

Arthur, as I'm sure you could have guessed from my most recent essay, I'm a big fan of materially embodied form ("its" rather than "bits," to bastardize a phrase of John Wheeler's). But I'm not at all sure why painting should be given priority here. Despite my formal training in the medium, and despite the fact that I'm usually identified as one of its practitioners, I've always been allergic to painting's superiority complex. (Indeed, if we're talking about our need to have a sensual relationship with matter, sculpture would seem the more likely candidate for privileged status!) All the same, I'm grateful to you for reminding me of Paul Crowther, whose writings about art and embodiment have been very influential to me. But to the larger point of your final paragraph: While I agree that material presences are more important in art than ever (to, as you say, offer a counterweight to our immersion in the digital), I think there's an enormous role in 21st century art for "it and bit" hybrids. The examples cited by Sarah in her most recent post are a case in point. This is art that uses the latest technologies to collaborate with other animal species for the betterment of our built environment. Like any other tool, technology can be both deleterious and a great boon. I'm always excited to see artists using digital technologies to create sensually alluring, complex, and multi-valently profound art (which is, admittedly, nowhere near always the case with digital projects).

Arthur said…

I think it doesn’t matter too much, outside of these specialized debates, whether or not other animals make “art” or if art is a human adaptation. As Abram observes, in his wonderful little essay below, animal behavior is astounding—I’d add the “behavior” (sorry for all the scare quotes) of more primitive organisms is as well. Who cares if we apply a human-derived honorific or not? At the same time, what is wrong with considering human art from a “species centric” or indeed culturally specific perspective? I think there’s room here for all sorts of perspectives as long as one doesn’t lose sight of the big picture.

Arthur said…

Crowther’s point, and my own, is not to privilege painting or even traditional materially embodied art (he has a lot to say about sculpture in that book and elsewhere) in general terms. Rather it is to investigate what is distinctive and valuable about all of the major visual arts forms/mediums. As he also argues in that book, digital art seems to maintain a capacity for expansive formal innovation that painting has exhausted.

Arthur said…

He does devote greater attention to painting PVA and elsewhere and as so could be said to “privilege” painting. Aside from what appears to be personal interest, it is clear that he takes painting to be a kind of foundation for more recent and mixed- media forms. But he writes with sympathy about these too.

Final Guest Speaker Event and Introduction to Session V (Taney Roniger)

As we enter our fifth and final session today, I’m pleased to announce our last guest speaker event. Today at 4:00 pm EST, cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram will be joining us to discuss some of the key issues that have come up over the last week in our dialogue as well as some ideas he’s been thinking about in his own work. While attendance will be limited to symposium panelists only, a link to the talk will be made available here shortly after the event’s conclusion. Any reader comments or questions for David can be posted under that link; I’m sure there will be much to discuss after our conversation!

For panelists: David Abram talk: Saturday, December 12th, 4 - 6pm EST

For Readers: Please check back this evening for a link to the talk

Session V

Art Beyond Art: Reimagining Aesthetic Form as a Cultural Force

Saturday, December 12 – Sunday, December 13

In the face of the radical changes that the next few decades are sure to bring – not least among them the fallout from whatever we do, or do not do, about climate change – art made by and for an elite insider group is becoming increasingly untenable. In this final session we will consider ways in which aesthetic form might operate in the larger culture to sow the kinds of values we have been discussing in this symposium.

 5.1     Does the emerging shift away from human exceptionalism open up new possibilities for art’s role in culture? In what ways can we imagine art facilitating – or indeed challenging – the larger cultural shifts underway?

 5.2     In what ways might a posthumanist art change the way art is taught, discussed, and written about? Can we imagine a way of teaching, speaking, and writing about art that deprioritizes the intentions or biographical narrative of the individual maker?

 5.3     Can a new understanding of aesthetic form facilitate what Rebekah Sheldon has called choradic reading, a new trend in scholarship that incorporates embodied interactions into the transmission of ideas?

 5.4     Nora Bateson has speculated that the future will be founded “in the logic of affect,” meaning that the how of how knowledge is conveyed – the tone of an article, the shape of the language – will become valued as a kind of knowledge in itself. Can we imagine ways in which visual art might participate in this burgeoning awareness of the power of form?

 5.5     The environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht has proposed the word symbiocene for the geological era we are entering as we part ways with the anthropocene. In keeping with the word’s prefix, in what ways might visual form help encourage a sense of interpersonal, interspecies, and intercultural cohesion?

 5.6     How has the pandemic changed how we think about and experience art, and do we anticipate that some of these changes will be permanent?

More on Decentering (Werner Sun)

As an artist, I've been absorbing all the thrilling ideas in this symposium and wondering: what does posthumanism look like in practice, and how would we recognize it if we saw it? I think even the skeptics among us agree that we humans have overvalued our own positive qualities and dismissed those of other creatures. But what is the antidote to that kind of self-centered thinking? I suggest that it is not by replacing one dogma with another; it is by working against dogma itself.

For this reason, I am intrigued by Stephanie's previous post re-establishing the self as a focal point and drawing a distinction between self and identity (labels). Recovering sensuality in art is probably best done through the unlabeled self because sensory experience is unavoidably subjective. Perhaps the first step in decentering the human is, paradoxically, to embrace the continuous creative fashioning of self as a reminder that human-ness is not a static concept.

In fashioning ourselves, we should examine our assumptions, and one assumption I'd like to address here is the injunction against reductionism. I do not dispute that reductive thinking is problematic. But I would also claim that it cannot be avoided. Strictly speaking, every fact that we gather and every insight we derive is the result of a reductive act. So, how then do we temper its dehumanizing effects?

Here is one speculative answer inspired by mathematics. In math, as in real life, every line of reasoning takes place within a closed system defined by a set of assumptions. These assumptions tame the complexity of the world by carving it up into bite-sized pieces. Change your assumptions, and your reasoning will follow. For example, all of Euclid's theorems can be derived from five postulates defining a planar geometry. One of these theorems says that the angles of a triangle always sum to exactly 180 degrees. However, if we switch to a spherical geometry, the rules are different, and now the angles of a triangle can sum to more than 180 degrees. These two statements contradict each other, but they are both true, each in their own systems.

Then the question arises: which system should I use here on Earth? The Earth is a sphere (more or less), but for most practical applications (like building a house), I can approximate that sphere as a flat plane. So, for convenience, I will use Euclidean geometry for my calculations. But in the back of my mind, I am always aware that these calculations are ever so slightly wrong because of the imperceptible curvature of the Earth. In other words, it's possible to think in two different systems at the same time, even though we can only operate in one.

And so it is with all types of thinking, not just mathematical. I can think like an artist today, and like a scientist tomorrow. I can see myself as a member of society and also as an autonomous individual. We humans are at one with the universe, and we are a differentiated part of it. As Walt Whitman says, "I contain multitudes."

Note that I am not espousing a postmodernist relativism that rejects all truth. Rather, I am saying that every truth rests on a framework, but the choice of framework is ours to make, in an existentialist manner, constantly and fluidly, from one moment to the next. In other words, maybe one way to decenter the human is not to deny the existence of the human or the existence of the center (because we need it as a reference point), but to unmoor that center from any fixed location.

So, perhaps a posthumanist artist does not work with specific forms or ideas, but starts simply with the assumption of a multivalent self and cultivates a deliberate practice of ever-shifting and-ness. Then, whatever material forms emerge naturally from this practice can be evaluated on their own terms.

Karen Fitzgerald said…

That's the stickler, then. On their own terms.

I'm not wishing for a wider systemic, evaluative "system". We've had enough of that.

What "their own terms" implies is a deep understanding of a variety of systemic thoughts/constructs/ideational definitives. In other words, deep education.

For me, that is the main challenge of bringing my work to the public sphere. In the general realm, not everyone is on the same footing with "deep education". Not everyone knows the finer distinctions between imagination and creativity, or, reductionist thinking / cognition.

And so the decentering spools out across parallel worlds: the tight academic circles of generative thinking to the wider realms of preparing young people to actively, passionately, enthusiastically, and imaginatively participate in a (new) post-humanist world view. This is an inherently chaotic system. It mirrors my own painting process: using flow methods where I cannot control what the paint is doing, I actively work with "chance". (Now, there's a word that might need some unpacking!) Same, same with the dissemination process of "new" thinking into the realms of activation: schooling going all the way down to those people shaping the 2 year-olds, 3year-olds, and on up. Our current system of public education is so focused on some sort of (mythical) bench-mark standardization for basic skills that it totally obliterates any attention to the sensate human souls present in each classroom. My sense is that this construct is something each of us needs to engage in some way: to foster the excitement that a post-humanist "world-view" might allow, as well as all the political, economic, social, and social-justice work to be done to embrace the newness we are all so excited about. It's a round world: it's all connected.

Werner Sun said…

Thanks very much for your comment, Karen. I agree with you. What I meant by "on their own terms" is that the artwork should be evaluated without preconceived notions, solely on its ability to connect with the viewer, and not graded on its adherence to someone's agenda (least of all the artist's). The cognitive process I described is what I aspire to in my studio. Ideally, viewers would not need to know anything about my process to appreciate my work.

And yes, seeing with our entire bodies is sadly a lost art.

Taney Roniger said…

What a great comment, Karen -- thank you for that. And you make many good points here too, Werner. The point has been raised that we really ought not be prescribing certain forms and practices and proscribing others, and I agree. But the problem is that the art world is so locked inside its trends. While we can't legislate what artists should or shouldn't make, I think what we can do is begin to think, speak, and write about art differently. Just as an experiment, I've always been tempted to write an exhibition review that elides not just all mention of the artist's ideas but also any mention of the artist herself! What would it be like to just encounter the objects as things with their own agency -- their own, if you will, interiority -- and to respond in like language? I'm thinking here of a use of language that honors the formal integrity of the words themselves and that uses those words to evoke the rhythms of what's being described. Perhaps something like this approach, more than any particular forms or materials, is what might make posthumanist art distinct from what has preceded it.

Werner Sun said…

You're onto something here, Taney! This organic approach makes a lot of sense to me, and it's probably more productive in the long term. In fact, the experiment you suggested might make an interesting group writing project. What if each participant wrote a posthumanist review of a famous work, as an exercise in seeing familiar material differently?

Taney Roniger said…

Werner, you've taken my idea into the realm of viable experiments - thank you! That might be a great idea for a mini-conference -- a more impromptu affair but with its own site. I'm dying to see what people would do with this. I guess the "reviews" become something like poetry.

Link to David Abram talk (Taney Roniger)

For our final guest speaker event today we were honored to be joined by cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram. David spoke for an hour and then engaged our panel in a lively discussion for well over another hour.  We all agreed it was the perfect way to cap our penultimate day of dialogue, so I encourage everyone who's been following to watch the video. Questions and comments for David can be posted under this thread. Enjoy!


Jon Sakata said…

As codetta to today’s deeply inspiring, nourishing, replenishing talk with David (deepest gratitude to You, David) just wish to give arc to Daniel’s question concerning the future of an (A/a)rt-sans-ego. I feel extremely fortunate to have experienced in flesh and with forever-after altered state, such ego-free — but also spirit-infused, materially blissed-out trans-portality (trans-‘Art’?)— in the work of two of our fellow panelists, Christine and Deborah. I keep finding in their work a sense of Time — untethered from any personological bearing — that seems to span the most distant pasts and futures yet all magically concentrated into a vibrating present. Their work mystifies me. Their work transits an impossibility: evoking incalculable distances (where in the universe did this come from?) and yet giving hum of place that tremors with immediacy and incisive punctuation: here. Here. He(a)r(e). H-e-(a)-r-(e) is a verb.

So, as a signing-off, thank you Taney too, for bringing us all, to H-e-(a)-r-(e)...

Deborah Barlow said…

As we listened to David last night I considered how multidimensional our connections with each other actually are. As is appropriate for the group that was gathered in the zoom room for 2 ½ hours, this was a rich trove of philosophical reconsiderations and reframings. But even more striking to me was how closely the evening resembled the ones I have had with shamans, indigenous elders (male and female) and wisdom workers, ones where sacred journeys to other realms happen with and through words, images, emotions, sacred substances and inchoate powers that are unseen and unnamed. As an artist I live for moments like those, and I feel so grateful and gifted when they happen.

Jon, I am so honored by your what you wrote and how deeply you have penetrated my visual work. That understanding was there right from the beginning. Our adventure together doing Clew was its own kind of sacred expansion, one that I continue to reference, learn from and build upon. You collaborate at a level I have never experienced before: limitlessly creative, perpetually permuting, deeply authentic, and so far above the my way/your way duality. Our friendship has been one of the greatest gifts of my life.

And one last shout out to the ever resourceful, ever open, ever brilliant, ever talented, ever-warmhearted Taney: This has been such an unexpectedly rich adventure. I would go anywhere with you! Thank you for all that you did to bring this extraordinary gaggle together. I will be talking about the experience of this 10 day float down the Thingly Affinities river for years to come.

Taney Roniger said…

Jon and Deborah, what beautiful words from you both -- thank you. This whole thing has been such a thrill for me. While I'll save my concluding remarks for a separate post, let me say here that it has indeed been an extraordinary gaggle! And to think that this light we generated came out of what is such an otherwise dark season. (We might look back on this experience in twenty years and marvel over the scant mention of the menacing microbe!)

There's so much to say about David's talk. So many memorable bits ("You are therefore I am"; our self-imposed exile from the great voluminous "inside"; the I as upright spine -- I could go on and on!), but I want to comment here on a thought I had while David was discussing language. If our separation from the world can be linked to the rise of phonetic writing, where, arising now from abstractions, the glyphs no longer visually evoke anything of the landscape beyond us, we might be tempted to make an analogous claim for art. We might say that when art ceased to represent things in the world, turning instead to form *as form*, color *as color*, it withdrew into itself, coiling into a closed subjectivity that furthered our isolation inside our abstractions. But the thought that occurred to me was: No! If you think about it, exactly the opposite is the case. We might instead say that when visual art was fixated on representation, the impression could easily be had that the idea was to "read" or “decode” it -- that instead of luxuriating in what was actually present (pigment, stone, metal, that slab of gorgeous mahogany), the mind's job was to move elsewhere, into *ideas* of the things represented. (How many art history lectures actually mention materials? How many discussions of narrative paintings include anything about their forms?) Taking this idea one step further, then, abstract art -- which, it seems to me, is the dwelling of the artists on this panel -- might be seen not as a retreat into human subjectivity, as is so often claimed, but rather as a turning outward toward, and a rekindling of our affection for, other things in the world. It's that radical otherness that David talks about: abstract art as an encounter with otherness -- but an otherness that holds within it intimations of our shared thingliness. This is how I’d like to think about form/forming moving forward. There’s still a lot of work to do, however, in shedding “form” of its modernist-humanist-retreatist associations.

Taney Roniger said...

One more thought: Jon mentions Deborah's and Christine's work as consummate examples of posthumanist art. I could not agree more. I have not, alas, had the opportunity to see either's work in the flesh -- and my flesh longs to do so. One thing that hasn't come up in this dialogue is the body-denying, utterly stultifying experience of viewing art online. I wonder if anyone would care to explore this issue and what might be done about it.

Arthur said…

As a reviewer/critic, I've found it important to refuse to review virtual "exhibitions" of artworks created to be seen and interacted with in meatspace (I like the term)--at least as long as there are physical shows worth taking seriously. The Internet is a wonderful source of information about such works but passing off a website, even with fancy virtual interactivity, as a real show of sculptures or drawings or (yes) paintings gets me the wrong way.

Invitation to post images (Taney Roniger)

There's been so much talk over the last ten days about visual form, and while this has been wonderful, it occurs to me that we've seen so few images. I'd like to invite our panelists to post any images they'd like to share on our final day -- their own or those of other artists.  Let's close this out with a feast for the senses!

Here's my offering (an installation shot from my recent show Never the Same River):

Jon Sakata said…

Taney, my wife and I so much look forward to experiencing your work in the flesh, proximate, with breath and microscope. Everything we’ve seen online feels so magnetic to us; we can only imagine the power and lyrics in person!

Looking forward to such!

Deborah Barlow said…

I fell in love with Taney's work from my first view. Being with it, in the flesh, is in my future: as an IRL experiencer (when the virus allows) at a future exhibit as well as from being a collector. I want to wake up and have a feast of Taney's wisdom and her deft hand, face to face, every day.

In response to Taney's invitation to post images (Deborah Barlow)



Jon Sakata said…

Deborah, this is our favorite expression of (t)here-ness. . .

And to this day, we remember the weight of this painting (and yet weightless emanation from it): cold blue chemistries (metals?) radiating a cosmic song.

Deborah Barlow said…

Ever gracious you are dear Jon. Thank you.

PS. I love the words you use to describe my work.

Taney Roniger said…

Deborah, I want to dive into this and live the rest of my life there. Luscious, swishing, gently throbbing, both amniotic and cosmic -- in both cases, *home*.

Response to David’s talk (from Charlene Spretnak)

First of all, thank you, Taney, for inviting the visuals today! Greatly appreciated.


During David’s talk – always such a catalyst to seeing more! -- and our discussion afterward, one of the things that came to mind was an observation by the late great cultural historian Theodore Roszak, commenting on an essential premise in Freud’s thinking (the foundation of modern psychology, till the relational turn in recent decades), which, oddly, Freud mentioned only in passing. These two paragraphs from Ted’s seminal/ovular essay “Where Psyche Meets Gaia” in the anthology Ecopsychology (1995), which founded a subfield, are cited on p. 77 in my The Resurgence of the Real. I’m going to type all this out as a labor of love and gratitude, Thinglies; I have greatly enjoyed and learned from you all during Taney’s symposium. Here’s Ted:


            The pre ecological science of Freud’s day that became embedded in modern psychological thought preferred hard edges, clear boundaries, and atomistic particularities. It was predicated on the astonishing assumption that the structure of the universe had simply fallen into place by accident in the course of eternity. Accordingly, the psychology of the early twentieth century based its image of sanity on that model. The normally functioning ego was an isolated atom of self-regarding consciousness that had no relational continuity with the physical world around it. As late as 1930, well after the Newtonian worldview had been significantly modified and the very concept of atomic matter had been radically revised, Freud, still a respected figure, could write in one of his most influential theoretical pieces: “Normally, there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of our self, of our own ego. This ego appears as something autonomous and unitary, marked off distinctly from everything else. . . . One comes to learn a procedure by which, through a deliberate direction of one’s sensory activities and through suitable muscular action, one can differentiate between what is internal – what belongs to the ego – and what is external – what emanates from the outer world. In this way one takes the first step towards the introduction of the reality principle which is to dominate future development.” [from Civilization and Its Discontents, Norton, 1961, p. 14]


            “One comes to learn a procedure. . . .” These are among the most fateful words that Freud ever wrote. Whatever else has changed in mainstream psychological thought, the role Freud assigned to psychotherapy, that of patrolling the “boundary lines between the ego and the external world,” remained unquestioned in the psychiatric mainstream until the last generation. Moreover, his conviction that the “external world” begins at the surface of the skin continues to pass as common sense in every major school of modern psychology. The “procedure” we teach children for seeing the world this way is the permissible repression of cosmic empathy, a psychic numbing we have labeled “normal.” Even schools of psychotherapy as divergent as humanistic psychology could only think of “self-actualization” as a breakthrough to nothing more than heightened personal awareness. As for the existential therapists, they were prepared to make alienation from the universe the very core of our authentic being.


                                                            *     *     *


CS:  It seems to me that the posthumanist turn we’ve been exploring in this symposium necessarily requires that we critically revisit – in our own childhood and in modern socialization in general – that repressive “coming to learn a procedure” by which “we differentiate” our inner reality from the world out there. Our healing, corrective, and compassionate reexamination of that dominant frame of reference opens into a grand liberatory effort, a coming home to the world, from which countless possibilities arise in the arts and all areas.

In response to Taney's request for images (Christine Corday)


2000F 9090p.

Jon Sakata said…

William Bronk’s poem, Impropriety:

The universe is not in human terms

nor earth which quakes our works away.

Day is a marvel massive outside our scale,

reality an absent presence here.

Thanks for this image Christine. . .

Deborah Barlow said…

Christine, Encountering you and your work has been one of the highlights of this symposium for me. Your conversation was one of the most compelling artist's presentations I have ever heard. So with you! I will be keeping up with you and your future projects.

Scout Dunbar (Arthur Whitman)

I am posting a link, as I don't have the artist's explicit permission. Scout Dunbar's work, which I've written about on a number of occasions, has a tremendous vitality of form and material. It also points to the continuing currency of abstraction in whatever we would like to call our post-post- era.

Deborah Barlow said…

Arthur, Thank you for sharing Scout's work. Exquisite, just exquisite. I'll be tracking her from here on.

Taney Roniger said…

Very nice, Arthur! My favorites are the geometric drawings. So very curious -- and so very well made.

In response to Taney's request for images (Jon Sakata)


 from ex(i/ha)le (2020)

Deborah Barlow said…

Jon, Your energy is so explosively expressive. You originally won me over with your mastery in music--sound, performance, composition, interpretation--but then it expanded to your deep and profound dives into poetry, language, visual form, installation, collaboration, pedagogy and wisdom traditions.

This exhibit happened during Covid so I did not see it in person, sadly. But it was yet another stopover in the Sakata Saga, a journey that just keeps going deeper and deeper into the _____ (any name could work.) I will be following you wherever you go.

Taney Roniger said…

Jon, these are so incredibly mysterious and alluring. I'm imagining they're stills from an elaborately orchestrated performance whose rhyme or reason wholly eludes me. I'm lost in a profusion of sensual excess -- one of my absolute favorite experiences! Mysterious *and* magical. (David's word seems to apply here perhaps more than any other.) It's been such a pleasure getting to know you. I so hope we'll get to work together again sometime.

Jon Sakata said…

Thanks Deborah and Taney! As Deborah mentions, this installation was never open to the general public. It was a collaboration with poet Willie Perdomo, and student creatives at Phillips Exeter who are members of a student-driven design collaborative on campus. As the physical installation remained dormant (but ‘up’) over months, the gallery’s then director, Lauren O’Neal, suggested we create a virtual surrogate. Rather than trying to just document or describe the neuro-diverse, sonic-tactile-multi-video projection strangeness of the installation (including the large pneumatic BoPet cube that was squeezed into the side-bay space), I made the following short film that ‘troubles‘ the installation (and the ‘human’), to go places that the installation did and didn’t go. See:

There's a description of the project included with the Vimeo vid.

The only person beyond the gallery staff and Jung Mi and I to experience it, was the poet—whose recorded readings are key to the installation’s atmospherics, dystopia, play, haunt, “mystery and magic”—his wife, and one of their sons. Willie can be seen enjoying it in its neuro-cosmic splendor in one of the included images.

Yes, it will be a joy to work together again. Deborah can attest to the fun and sensorial freak we had putting on CLEW. Wouldn’t it be a blast to do something the three of us?!?!?

Deborah Barlow said…


Taney Roniger said…

And a second set of YESes from me, Jon! Let's make that happen.

We Have Been Here Before (Stephanie Grilli)

We have been here before. Our questions and concerns have been fertile ground for artists, writers, and thinkers since the eighteenth-century. I suppose one could situate the jumping-off point to be in the post-Lockean world in which the idea that we come to know the world through our senses is established, and along with that a dynamic model of selfhood arises. These coincide with the time in which Art becomes a value in itself, and maybe there is even a connection: Artworks as artworks are a sensory display whether a Chardin still life or a Kandinsky abstraction. Aesthetic coherence and creative subjecthood go hand in hand. [David’s observation of how we need the other to experience ourselves as a unity goes with artworks as well.]

Perhaps there’s an overwhelming aspect to both knowing the world through our senses and the self-as-a-work-of-art that resulted in mechanisms to channel and simplify, and these have become culturally dominant. Think of the old Devo lyric regarding “freedom from choice.” For at least three centuries, artists have been a contravening force to an increasingly one-dimensional society. Influenced by German Idealism, Samuel Taylor Coleridge called for expression that allowed for an ever-expanding consciousness and the dynamic forces out of which the world was constantly becoming. But the Victorian world that emerged that was to become our world was one in which sensationalism stood in place of unfolding revelation and the culture of visibility rested upon appearances, identity, and things.  In the middle of the nineteenth century, Thomas Carlyle despaired of “the show and sham of things,” and it seems to be ever so.

In the context of Art as a value in itself, artworks are image and object as a simultaneity. Perhaps these correspond to the dreaded mind/body dualism, but Art allows for mediating elements in which the two aspects comingle, which is form and process. Image is obviously related to imagination. Object is the subject of consciousness as well as manipulation of materials. In both, the visual artist is bringing something into existence and giving shape. As Western culture has evolved dysfunctionally, the craving for imagery and objects has resulted in a proliferation of both, with an oversaturation of images detached from context and from the physical and objects reduced to reified fetishes within a materialist system.  How strange that there now exists within the artworld itself a kind of iconoclasm that wants to suppress imagination and mastery (excuse the expression) of materials.

We haven’t really touched on the social, economic, and political forces that would make it so, but I have hinted here as to the psychology need that would make an aestheticizing sensibility untenable in ordinary lives. There is an animal need to make quick assessments and seek simple readings of information. That is why it is all the more essential that we go forward by looking backward. To that end, I suggest that we consider the aesthetic act — whether art-making, art criticism, or art history — one of interpenetration rather than interpretation. Here is where I’d like Mr. Wordsworth to body forth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

and twinkle on the Milky Way,

They stretched in never-ending line

along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not be but gay,

in such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

what wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

In response to Taney's request for images (Werner Sun)


Double Vision 3D, triptych, 2019

Archival inkjet prints and acrylic on board

16” x 51” x 2.5” (overall)

Taney Roniger said…

Gorgeous, Werner - a crystalline profusion! I feel like I'm running through a light forest in early spring with sunlight flickering through the trees. It's the smell of young leaves and damp, eager soil. An image full of life and hope.

Deborah Barlow said…

Werner, yes, I agree with Taney--a crystalline profusion.

I responded to this passage from your own writing about your work:

"Folding images is therefore my way of actively perceiving the world, of shaping facts into a digestible form, and of giving voice to the irrepressible human impulse to observe, record, and comprehend — an impulse that underpins both art and science."

This is a valuable exploration that calls upon your multifaceted competence as both an artist and scientist. Thank you for sharing it here.

Responding to Taney's request for images (Paul Myoda)


Fire Cloud Study, 2020

Charcoal on paper

16" x 20"

Deborah Barlow said…

Thank you for sharing this Paul. This is but a single shard in your rich and highly complex body of work. Worth the deep dive!

Concluding remarks and acknowledgements (Taney Roniger)

While I couldn’t hope to summarize all the rich material that’s been explored here over the last ten days, what I can say is that on the subject of form and posthumanism there remains so much lush, beckoning, untrodden terrain. My hope is that the dialogue we began here will inspire further thinking, feeling, speaking, writing, and -- not least -- aesthetic forming on the subject, and that any seeds we’ve planted will grow in directions none of us can foresee.

 Among the many feelings I leave this conference with is a certain reinvigorating optimism. My sense is that there’s a real longing out there -- a longing to recover our sensual immersion in the world, that carnal belonging we traded in for a misguided and moribund mastery. I see this longing in people’s frustration with online life, but more specifically I see it among artists. What I see, hear, feel from us collectively is a deep yearning for all the things that have been banished from art: sensual form, beauty, the sacred, (dare I say it?) love.  And as David Abram has pointed out, this reclamation of our creaturely belonging cannot but bring with it an attitude of humility  (and is there anything we need more right now than a colossal dose of exactly this?). What if art could serve as an agent of humility by fiercely re-embracing all those exiled qualities? The reinstitution of sensual form, beauty, the sacred, eros: this is exactly what I see in a new posthumanist art, and with this a nudging of the human back into the complex web of relations.

I have many people to thank for the success of this symposium, foremost among them all the panelists, to whom I give a deep bow of gratitude. Thank you all for your passionate engagement, your enormous generosity, and not least your exquisite eloquence in sharing your ideas. I’m truly humbled by you all. I want to give a special thanks to Deborah for her steady infusion of support throughout this project and to Charlene for her astute feedback on my drafts of the session questions. I also want to thank our readers for offering such meaty and provocative comments. And finally, I want to thank my husband, Colin Selleck, for having the patience of Job while I spent so many of our weekends glued to the computer. I pray he’ll still recognize me when I emerge from the cave.

Jon Sakata said…

Maybe our greatest hope for inter-human relations will come through interspecies and geomorphic attunement...

Thanks again Taney and everyone for these days of vitalizing dialogic web-making. . .


Taney Roniger said…

Thank *you*, Jon - and what a stellar performance today! 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

Deborah Barlow said…

In Rebecca Solnit’s recent book, Whose Story Is This? She describes how she once believed that change begins in the margins and then moves towards the center. She has since changed her mind. “It’s not the margins, the place of beginnings, or the center, the place of arrival, but the pervasiveness that matter most.” She continues:

"The consequences of these transformations are perhaps most important where they are most subtle. They remake the world, and they do so mostly by the accretion of small gestures and statements and the embracing of new visions of what can be and should be."

This symposium was an extraordinary concentration of those subtle “small gestures and statements,” leaving me thinking/feeling with much more depth and an expanded sense of it all.

As Solnit phrased it:

"We are building something immense together that, though invisible and immaterial, is a structure, one we reside within--or, rather, many overlapping structures...Though there are individual voices and people who got there first, these are collective projects that matter not when one person says something but when a million integrate it into how they see and act in the world."

Thank you Taney for your expert helmsmanship. As the ideator at the center of this adventure, you demonstrated exemplary skills. You have exemplified the best verbs: envisioning, inspiring, inclusivizing, insighting, stimulating, authenticizing. I step off the Thingly Affinities vessel with a greater sense of how the mystery I live with intimately is part of a larger one. In homage to our guest Charles Eisenstein, we are all closer to that more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

Taney Roniger said…

Beautifully stated, Deborah -- thank you.

Werner Sun said…

Thanks so much, Taney, for your vision and hard work in organizing this rewarding symposium! You've given us tons to think about over the days and years to come.