Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Detente of Representation 1


I just read Peggy Nelson’s take on speed:


It reminds me that bridges often have interesting undercarriages. And artists are doing a lot of interesting, ephemeral things out there. Consider:

“Consider: what may be absorption and focus from one angle could be irresponsible escapism from another: surfing the web versus gazing at a Van Gogh looks much the same from the point of view of the object. And the converse may also apply. What may be fragmentary and distracted frittering might also be a way of integrating the experience of art into everyday life. Because as much as we crave continuity, we also crave interruption; and in the space of those breaks, art can surface.”

I like this. And, as Nelson says early in her essay, we’ve had complaints of the “speed” of modern life since before “modern.”

But, even so, there is a pervasive feeling that things are pretty spaghettified these days. I think of it as the contemporary American epicurean impulse—Skittery, Hoagland called it, but in the catalogues of nouns it reminds me more of the other side of the Victorian age, the wild scramble for more random sparkly things from the corners of the globe.

As an American who’s not gone further than Puerto Rico, I can only speak of “American” with anything approaching even tentative confidence, and this America, the almost empire, mixed with globalization as supermarket, has stocked the shelves, and stacked the deck. As seen on TV, so seen in the arts.

The postmodernists called it the pastiche that follows modernist collage. Church night called it several BINGO cards at once. So we’re all multi-tasking now, with bulldozers and glue. It’s not subtle, but it can be rather fetching, in a buzz buzz zip zip kind of way. All Bodies Fall Equally Fast, as science tells us. It’s there in the principle of equivalence, as well.

The Swedish say “lagom” and we head to google and .5 seconds later we're all up to speed. There has been a fundamental shift over the last decade or two, from an economy of knowledge to an economy of search terms. This is not necessarily a bad thing. No longer does one need to hold knowledge in one’s head, one just needs access to the internet. Information used to be valued by how difficult it was to get (the journey to a library, etc), one had to travel to the information, to how fast it is to get (google), where the information travels to you. So that now, if information isn’t readily available, then it’s deemed to be of little value. Research is easy. But only a certain kind of research.

What (repetition compulsion) are we teaching ourselves?

Contemporary art is busy. This is not a focused or languid or slow time. Even our focused or languid or slow artists are busying it up. And how much of this—if anything—is a real change in how we pay attention? Were things really slower once? Nelson uses the example of Vaudeville, how acts were targeted to under three minutes so as to fit in the attention span of the audience . . .

The flip side of this energy, this busyness, this epicurean impulse, is the charge of a flattening of value. I understand that charge, but rather than a flattening of value, what I see in a lot of art—or even most art—is ambivalence. It’s not irony that marks our age, it’s ambivalence. And ambivalence is not the flattening of value, but the difficulty of settling on one value.

It’s easy to charge poets with irony (as if irony in and of itself is a bad thing, which, by the way, it’s not). There’s a value judgment in that, right? “The poets these day, they’re just ironic.” It makes them sound hollow, snarky, shifty. But if one were to say they’re ambivalent, that to some large degree the entire age is, that doesn’t carry the instant critique. A symptom of our busyness is the instant, and, as well, the quip, the instant diagnosis, the instant dismissal, those are as much a part of the speediness problem of our time as what they critique.

Maybe our contemporary relationship with silence—it scares us—explains the busyness of our art much more than does saying John Ashbery did it or Postmodernism did it. Silence, as TV has it or most art has it, is a missed opportunity for noise.

So how is art to take an adequate picture of this reality? The pleasures of simple answers to impossible questions? A new rug?

The Paper Chase, indeed


At 6/18/2012 3:33 AM, Blogger juliangreenfield said...

A piece of artistic writing indeed!

Beach Clothing

At 6/19/2012 6:46 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


Even robots can relate to this, so you must've touched upon something. It doesn't make me want to wear beach clothing, but I digress.

I like the formulation that ambivalence marks our age and that we've shifted from an economy of knowledge to an economy of search terms. With enough time and Google, one can write about pretty much anything with authority, but only if our attention lasts long enough.

I guess the question I have is: will we exhaust ourselves? Our attempts to look like the future are often stupid, and even if we stop looking for "the next thing" there's always a next thing.

At 6/19/2012 7:50 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Absolutely, we've been living in NEXT since at least Dr. Strangelove. But part of that is also the Rhetoric of Exhaustion, right? As part of THE NEXT?

We were promised jet packs and what we get is robo-spam for beach clothing. Welcome to the future, we're glad you made it.

I really like the reminder from Peggy Nelson that we've always had relatively short attention spans, in general.

Is it possible for us as a culture to become exhausted, really exhausted? What would it look like if we did? I like the article from the Onion that came out this week, where exhausted Americans are resting up this summer to prepare for another grueling bout of television coming this fall.

So is a decorated banality still a banality? Is a jittery exhaustion still an exhaustion? Yes and yes, surely, but, as you say, for all our silliness of NEXT, there will indeed be a next, and it might well look something like someone's conception of it.

Or i could just shorten my reaction to it to: YIKES.

At 6/19/2012 7:58 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

As a side note on NEXT and the FUTURISTS, from Wikipedia (since search terms is the new knowing things):

"The term futurology in its contemporary sense was first coined in the mid-1940s by the German Professor Ossip K. Flechtheim, who proposed a new science of probability. Flechtheim argued that even if systematic forecasting did no more than unveil the subset of statistically highly probable processes of change and charted their advance, it would still be of crucial social value."


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