Sometimes They Touch, Sometimes They Don’t

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”– Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein’s statement nicely outlines what I want to discuss: that which cannot be clearly stated but only pointed towards, past language. Of course, this is the opposite of what he just said, but taken literally the meaning is essentially the same as a popular saying among art school freshmen, “You can’t talk about art”, which is neatly negated by things like art school and, I think, pretty much everything you do at art school. In any case, the quote is regarding a hypothetical perfect logical language, and Wittgenstein talked about art. These blank spots in language are important because, it seems to me, the undefined qualities of things are the essence of what makes them interesting. If something is comprehensible it is banal. Advertisements are a good example. They attempt to convey something obscure and end up coherent; advertising is supposed to convey that a product should be desired. Desire is not coherent; we cannot define its boundaries. It is an impulse towards an expectation of happiness or pleasure, but that description conveys nothing of the actual experience of desiring. Coca-Cola, for instance, knows this intimately. With slogans like “Coke is It” and “Life Begins Here”, the message is that Coke is the embodiment of realized desire, the key to The Good Life: authenticity, true happiness, infinite fun, etc. This, obviously, is bullshit. Coke is not It and we are aware. Advertising fails because we know that it is a lie, a signifier that cannot possibly contain the signified. It is a weak attempt at creating desire to cloak a far louder message, that to consume. The effect is something like a lace tablecloth hung over a Moai statue. This message to consume is absolutely concrete, the company wants to sell their product so that they can make money. There is nothing undefined about a financial transaction. It is an arithmetic equation. It is boring. Still, the attempt towards something undefinable is there, only it fails to supersede the banal nature of advertisements. It would be reductive to try to draw the lines between interesting/banal and undefinable/definable, but the difference is clear when experienced.

I tried to construct an ‘intellectual’ problem that would not be solved. It came to be, finally, the dichotomy between the ‘rational’-whatever can be explained in words-and its opposite-which is not ‘irrational’ or ‘a-rational,’ but which cannot be explained in words. The true opposite of the ‘rational’ can be said in words, can be described, but the words are not an explanation.”

-Robert Ashley

The undefined is essentially felt. A feeling is undefinable because the definition cannot be the feeling, it can at best convey some image of the feeling which may cause it to be recalled by another. Romantic love is the classic embodiment of this. No one can be unacquainted with the idea of it. It is inherently related to reproduction, the “purpose” of existence in a certain biological sense. It is pervasive in society; post-adolescent social lives are more or less structured around the search for love, enforced by norms towards finding someone to marry and spend the rest of their lives with, “true” love that lasts until death. As an artistic subject, the love story is the most well tread narrative arc of all time, but it continues to fuel the emotional content of songs and movies with no sign of exhaustion. Even though one can be a passionate critic of traditional normativity and artistic clichés, essentially everyone wants this “true” love, a partnership where one’s identity blends into that of another. In spite of how radically predictable the experience is, falling in love feels entirely new when it happens. This experience of newness is itself the essence of its predictability, but, shockingly, one knows the cliché they are living. They should not feel as if their experience is singular or exceptional or destined to last, but regardless they do. Love is elemental to our being and is irreducible because it is felt, not thought. Cynical outlooks that love is not worth the pain cannot kill the desire. Academic analyses, no matter how penetrating (Barthes, Bataille), can not change the core of love because that core is beyond our understanding. It is out of our hands, an instinct we are born with. People do not want to be lonely. Love is, of course, a unique undefinable that bears little similarity to others, but it is probably the most universal undefined feeling. Beauty, power, attainment, symbolism, meditation, horror, eroticism, etc., all these things are obscure, words used as signifiers of experiences that elude our grasp. Life is full of these experiences, but the most obvious frame for approaching the topic is art, because art’s concern is with the undefinable. Plenty of art actively engages with subjects that are at least somewhat concrete, like politics. What separates an ecologically-themed art installation from activism is the “aesthetic” reaction to the art, whereas a canvasser is simply presenting information or, if you’re not jaded, a feeling of duty. Art without feeling is just communicating ineffectively, art with feeling is something else.

Take, for instance, Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing. Ashley was convinced that he had a mild form of Tourette’s Syndrome and recorded himself “performing” this unconscious speech. This formed the basis of the work, which he, somehow, came to associate with a notion of “fourness” as he transcribed and reread what he had said. He therefore made four parts for the piece; the speech, a recording of church organ, some very minimal synthesizer that sounds like clinking bottles, and a French translation of the speech, all of which he says came together just as unconsciously as his own speech. There are also muffled samples of Al Green that he doesn’t acknowledge. The effect when listening is unsurprisingly disorienting and surprisingly sexual. The feeling is liminal and intimate, like talking to someone as you fall asleep. You try to respond but the words come out mumbled as a half-spoken half-thought. Post-coital, in a phrase. It is both calming and unsettling. Not only does the work provoke a feeling, which is always obscure at root, but the feeling itself is defined by its obscurity. This transmission of feeling is the point. Defined and coherent forms of communication, like this essay, don’t have that ability. I can tell you about the feeling but I can’t make it. Art makes experience. The scope of possibility in artistic experience is boundless, a freedom that is confrontational and transgressive towards normally organized reality.

Regarding Automatic Writing, Ashley mentions transgression in the sense of unconscious speech. Unconscious speech is usually chalked up to intoxication, as in the case of the homeless, or with Ashley, who was a lush. However, the homeless can’t afford to be fucked up all of the time, and Ashley was certainly smart enough to know the difference between being drunk and speaking unconsciously. What it really is is a state of indifference to transgression. People don’t usually talk to themselves because society deems it embarrassing. Norms stop mattering if someone stops caring what society thinks or has a disorder that circumvents the normal restraints of tact. This expands public behavior beyond traditional limits of coherence into a wider sphere where incoherence is possible. Unconscious speech is embarrassing because it is a compulsive expression of inner experience, and inner experience is not definable. People are expected to behave and present themselves as coherent and stable, but in reality the interior experience of life is infinitely more complicated. That gets closer to the point of the undefinable concerns of art, but first we will address the limiting nature of coherence.

Society functions on definability. The microcosm of law-abiding society is the suburban dinner party. The hostess manages topics of conversation, keeping things pleasant, civil, and stimulating while avoiding controversial subjects: politics, religion, sex, suffering, etc. Things should run smoothly. Dropping a dish is a transgression, as is making a reference to who is fucking whose wife, even if everyone knows it. The veneer of stability is maintained by avoiding transgression. The party remains within the realm of definition and everyone has a pleasant time. Transgressions puncture the placidity with concealed issues, a failing marriage, cheating, suburban malaise, etc., which are incoherent problems that cannot be addressed concretely, only peripherally if at all. This is oppressive, of course. It’s fucked up to act like things are good when they’re not. This is our relationship to society. Politicians and whoever else insist on maintaining the veneer of functionality, but anyone with half a mind seems to know the reality is entirely otherwise. Capitalism is the shitty family dinner where real connection is repressed, we are the angst-ridden teenagers who think all of “this” is bullshit. What “this” is is obscure, and how one can address these issues is impossible to confront concretely, in the same way that suburban marital problems are. What is clear, though, is that the repression of real connection is tied to the suppression of undefinability. This is why teenagers are angst-ridden. Intuitively, as we come through adolescence and begin to understand the way the world works, we are repulsed. We want something else. Even if one cannot articulate it at 16, it is clearly felt that the impending social contract is wrong. The expectation is that one should play by the rules of the game in exchange for comfort, but it is not hard to realize that security does not guarantee fulfillment in life. We want to live life fully, whatever that means. As teens, that generally means rebellion by breaking rules that have been imposed by parents and society towards the ends of fun and excitement, undefinable experiences through transgression. The point is to play, avoid the mundanity of the contract as long as possible. We have to get jobs eventually, but this feeling of disavowal, of having been wronged by society, is essential.

beauty is a defiance of authority” -William Carlos Williams

The problem becomes more complicated with age. As providing for yourself becomes necessary it becomes clear that you need to work within the system on some level to survive. Moreover, you are inextricable from this system. Attempts at extrication lead to situations such as heightened outright oppression, as in the case of the homeless, or utopian rural isolation, which, even if it manages to exist free from dependence on society to survive, is self-centered and does nothing to help solve the issues endemic to the system. We are inside the system and must change it from within. This much is clear, but how to do so is undefinable. The problems are nebulous, systemic, resistant to change, impossible to concretely impact, far beyond the reach of a coherent solution. In a reflection of this, recent protest movements have taken on a similar incoherence. Occupy Wall Street and the protests in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown have both had very explicit initial messages, the injustice of gross income inequality and disgustingly lenient treatment of killer cops, but both the movements have not limited themselves to (relatively) simply confronting these conflicts. Protestors are aware of the deeply interrelated and complicated state of all issues we face under capitalism, so protests are no longer a response to a single issue but an expression of unfocused disavowal of the system as a whole. The problems we are facing are beyond addressing with a concrete agenda, i.e. traditional Marxism, so we cannot have a message that states anything clearly except for our indignance. At protests I’ve been to the rhetoric often turns to boycotting as the most effective form of protest, and even that simple of a statement feels weak. Aside from the obvious difficulties of mass mobilization of boycotting all problematic businesses, the “action” involved in boycotting is deferential to the establishment and trying to beat the house at its own game. It is coherent. The vitality of the protest is in the massed expression of indignance as a people. In this, protests become vital when they reject coherence and become transgressive. They should be peaceful, but they should not exist within the boundaries of acceptance by the establishment either. In grouped disobedience we approach Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone. At the moment where a protest no longer respects the given boundaries, the group is no longer restricted by capitalist society. The group is self-governing, which opens the space to a sense of unrestricted possibility that is exhilarating and dangerous. This is freedom, which only exists in spite of society because it transgresses the entire existing social structure. By rejecting the order imposed by society we open ourselves into disorderly experience, where we lose both the restrictions and protections of structure. This openness is totally unstable, and is typically suppressed almost immediately by police and mundane concerns like having work in the morning, so there is almost no opportunity to accomplish something concrete during the time, but the experience is vitalizing. If only for a few hours, a spontaneous community exists that is united against and apart from the disaster of society, pointing, incoherently, towards something else. This is, I think, the beauty being referred to in the above quote. Beauty is of course a classical and reductive word for it, but, at root, this transgression is essentially the same as that of art.

Of course, the root that art and a protest share is very basic, and the two have little else in common. Most obviously, protests are collective acts and art is made by an individual, or a collaboration of individuals. As I mentioned above, art negotiates an external expression of the complexity of inner experience which is flattened out in daily life. Classically this is associated with expression of individuality and, even more conservatively, with articulation of grand intimations with regards to the nature of humanity. These conceptions of art and the artist are clearly outdated in contemporary society, for reasons that I am sure are far too complex for me to handle. It suffices to say that modern global culture has destroyed the relative stability of cultural institutions that were once seen as objective, like nationality and religion, on the foundation of which one could build a stance of “truth”. For one example, compare the work of Andrei Tarkovsky with Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which contains a couple direct references to his work, with the recurring theme of Bach’s Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639) and an icon painting of Andrei Rublev, not to mention his “classical” art house cinematography. Tarkovsky’s work is grounded in a deep spirituality and concern for human suffering that anchors and gives gravitas to the ennui of his characters. Von Trier seems to believe in nothing aside from his own cynicism towards humanity which is, frankly, a little immature and makes his characters cartoonish. The 65-year-old virgin anchorite and the Ultimate Nympho whose entire life hinges on sexual pleasure to the point of nihilism are exaggerations. They make the twists of the film lack affect because of their ridiculousness. He is clearly a very talented director, but the grand scale he shoots for requires a grounding of conviction that no longer exists. Life is too complex. As such, art concerns itself with the experience of the artist rather than objectivity, but to say that an artist is expressing their individuality is still conservative.

The philosophical self is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul, with which psychology deals, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world—not a part of it.”

-Ludwig Wittgenstein

Expression of individuality presumes some kind of objectivity within personal experience. Presuming objectivity privileges the artist’s experience as an ideal to be achieved, which is reductive and arrogant. As with Wittgenstein’s philosophical self, the artist is not a subject within the world but a filter of experience. Without any “objective” ideals to aspire towards, the goal of art instead turns towards the articulation of the infinite multiplicity and complexity of lived experience, which is essentially undefinable. Even without an attachment to artistic subjecthood, one person’s work will always be different from that of another, cf. Conceptual poets like Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, who have more or less written themselves out of their work, will nevertheless always articulate a distinct sensibility, even between two poems of unedited found text. Content of art is arbitrary, but the arbitrariness is the point. Art’s multiplicity expresses the heterogeneity of life, which is contrary to the repressiveness of homogeneous mass culture. In this, art is a political act. Art makes tangible an interior experience which (if it’s good) points obliquely towards a less repressive reality, in the same way that a protest situation does. Creation is satisfying; it reifies the experience of the creator. Having rejected society’s dogma, we are left alone to find our own perspective, which is arbitrary except to ourselves; one’s perspective is informed by their interests and what they enjoy. Mass culture is a generally miserable thing and we are left to ourselves to make the best of it, which is essentially up to how we process our own experience. To be clear, everyone is an artist these days, thanks to the internet. Any picture on Instagram is as much a piece of art as anything in the Guggenheim. The only distinction, a tenuous one, is whether someone works to hone and articulate their perspective toward an aesthetic experience of life that on some level liberates one from the oppression of coherent reality, or not. This is useless as a frame for evaluating work. It has nothing to do with content, or even some sort of idea of artistic legitimacy. It is simply an outline of what makes one an artist, which comes down to little more than someone interested in the undefined. More importantly, by those terms, the creation of work is not essential to the artist. Increasingly, it seems to me, people are engaging with mass culture in ways that are undefined and disconnected from the original banal intention. As popular culture strains under its own weight, cracks of the undefined seep through. Garbage, advertisements, Congressional hearings, driving on the highway, etc. can all be seen as undefined and fascinating, even beautiful, from the right perspective. As I said earlier, art is simply an easy frame for discussing undefinablity. It is not special. Artists are not necessary, the undefined is everywhere. Still, art shares and articulates undefined experience, and that proliferation of experience is, to me, a buoy against misery, or, at least, boredom. It’s fun, that’s why people like art, right?

This essay is both textually and conceptually indebted to Robert Ashley’s liner notes to Automatic Writing, “Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives” by Susan Howe, and “Erotism” by Georges Bataille.

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