“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 04, 2009

It’s over, m. le coq, to sleep with the chickens

Does nature have rights?

One solution to the situation caused by the erasure of the human limit would be to say that there is a human limit defined by the rights of nature. From a practical point of view, this might be a smart environmentalist move. From a philosophical point of view, it might be a bit hard to construct (do swallows have a right to their migratory flight paths?), yet I could see how, within the framework of Rawlesian liberalism, this might seem a doable proposition.

From my perspective, however, this would not “solve” the problem. Rather, it would be another way of annexing nature to the artificial paradise. If we scratch the rights talk, we find the same massive attitude. Which is why I am traveling to such strange spots, the shadow of an it, an outsider pounding on your door, in the hide and sneakery of Limited Inc.

The question brings us back to a particular animal with rights – man – and his peculiar property of being now naked, now not. I’ve been looking at this nakedness from one tradition. Now let us look at it from the tradition of the animal.

Let me refer to Sergio della Bernardina’s ‘A person not completely like the others: the animal and its status (L’homme 1991 31(4))

To start off with – the title from this post comes from one of Bernardina’s pieces of data. It is a saying in a Spanish ritual, in which a cock is buried up to its neck and members of a group that surrounds it take turns, blindfolded, trying to detach his head with the blow of a stick.

Bernardina groups together a number of rituals and behaviors – behaviors of peasants driving cattle to the slaughter house, behaviors of hunters – from pre-industrial times until now. It is not just cocks that are treated to such bouts of cruelty. Dogs, wild mountain goats, pigs. Bernardina quotes an ethnological report concerning the emblematic Ainu bear ritual. In the Ainu village, the villagers first capture a bear cub. The cub becomes the pet of the village. It is cuddled. ‘Even officially” it is treated like a person.

Then comes the fatal day of the ceremony. “He is given a tour of the village, and all the details of the ceremony are gently explained to him, compensation for all the tribe of bears for the future ones put to death. It is necessary that he can recount all the grandeur of the ceremony in order for others to be happy to come to men who treat them so well and not to feel that anger which can destroy the huts of the village.”

Then, according to the ethnologist who Bernardina is quoting, “for reasons that we didn’t quite grasp”, each begins to mistreat the bear, to make it angry, to strike on it from all sides, to poke it with branches, etc. At last it is lead to the center of the village, where everyone is assembled, and then the chief of the ceremony shoots at it with an arrow. Theoretically, this should kill it right away – actually, everybody begins to shoot arrows at it. Then the bear, either dead or dying, is dragged about. Someone breaks its neck.

What the anthropologist doesn’t understand is why this cruelty has to be exercised. This is Bernardina starting point. Far from being an expression of plebian sadism - a very popular claim - Bernardina thinks that the cruelty actually plays a structural role. And that role is about transformation.

His notion is this: there is an idea out there that an animal is a thing. A machine. But Bernardina claims that we have no evidence that the direct human experience of an animal is of a thing. The tendency we find across cultures is that an animal is a person. It has “rights” in the sense that it has a certain personhood. For Bernardina, the idea that an animal is a thing or a machine only makes its entrance when the animal is put to death. It is here that the animal must be demoted from person to beast. The cruelty it is subject to is not, he claims, derived from some sadistic substratum, but is a way of making the beast appear as a beast. It will lash out. It will prove that it is guilty. And it will be put to death.

In fact, in Bernardina’s interviews with hunters in contemporary Europe, again and again, the fact that the beast, the prey, flees is unconsciously but compulsively presented as a justification to kill it. M. le coq, of course, is guilty of the sin of concupiscence. And so on. The very flies boys kill for sport "bother" us with their buzzing.

In a sense, Bernardina’s theory – of the making of the thing from the person – is the other side of what Bataille says, in his book on the cursed portion. There, he talks about dilapidating the thing to make it into a subject – even a divinity. This would be the negative of the positive of cruelty – in the former case, lowering the person to the status of a thing, in the latter case, raising a thing to a subject by way of making it cry out. There's an interdependence in the cultural logic here. For if punishment is about making a person into a thing, to punish a thing implies that it once was a person. The tears of things are the signatures of the spirit. In the dream of universal history, the punishment comes first, and the crime later. I cut myself to punish the object that I am, and thus become a subject doubly, first as the punisher, and then as the person who cries over the wound.

What does this have to do with our thread? Myself, I’ve been thinking of the passage from the dressed subject to the vulgar undressed nude. The act of undressing does seem to bring into play the same semiotic factors. And yet, of course, there are the nudes of Greece. The Lacedomonian girls wrestled naked with the Lacaedomonian boys, naked – or so the myth would go. Such innocence – it all begins in innocence.

Here is a story from an Italian paper:
M. Alessandro Schena, we read in an article of the press of 1895 (Caccia e Tiri, 20 August) “had bought a young English setter. He raised it with paternal care and much patience, since the student, in growing up, revealed a rather lunatic character and a rather independent temperament, which did not please his master too much… On the other hand, he manifested some excellent qualities: a very fine flair, a beautiful point, an impeccable sound (riporto) were his gifts, which were great enough to pardon some small sins. So much so that as a result of mutual indulgences, they became sister souls. But love, that perturbing and universal demon, broke their peaceful ties. Once coming to the age of manhoon, the animal commenced to court not females of his own species, but those of the human species; perhaps he had heard that the latter, unlike the former, are available in all seasons. Since he could not satisfy his desires with simple galanteries, he even had recourse to violence. Every day the master had to face protests from honest wives and modest virgins of the village. When one day he was caught in the act, the dog revolted against the just and vigorous punishment of the master not only by showing his teeth, but even in addressing some obscene propositions to the master himself. So much so that the master, red faced and with a broken heart,saw himself obliged to send this lascivious animal, with one shot, to the circle of Semiramis.”

Friday, April 03, 2009

voltaire's triumph

The naked and the nude – Robert Graves, that master of buncombe and poetry, wrote a poem contrasting the two, and giving all the props to the former – because the latter is of course, having gone through the cultural clutter since Winckelmann and come out of the trenches, all too classical, not grounded in the real White Goddess stuff:

For me, the naked and the nude
(By lexicographers construed
As synonyms that should express
The same deficiency of dress
Or shelter) stand as wide apart
As love from lies, or truth from art.

But if we cut back, of course, love and lies switch places, and the nude stands for the discovery that breaks the chains of enlightenment boudoir pinup. Given the sensualism of the 18th century, founded on attraction at a distance, on the one hand, and a materialism of something like atoms of touch – atoms like infinitely small hands, atoms that fill space with a feeling, an omnitactility, to which all that is spirit must be brought back – the distance between the nude statue and the onlooker was going to be a problem. The problem was one of directness – just like the political problem of representation. The nude led the people later in Delacroix, Marianne, chest exposed. Art and the truth are much more tightly conjoined than Graves, in 1957, wanted to admit.

Everything that rises, in the 18th century, seems to converge in Kant’s codexes, and this is no exception. First, there is … the peculiar morality that forbids making human beings objects – a universal moral law built on its universal contravention, a morality built on a moral impossibility. For these are subjects that walk among us, suddenly. Indeed, by inserting this simple denial of human everyday existence in the critique of practical reason, Kant gave the practical a whole new heroism – contravening the vulgarity into which the modern tended to find its equilibrium. Second, when the object is unavoidable, the aesthetic object, he lifts that too out of everyday life and demands for it the disinterested gaze. This was intentionally misread by Schlegel as a remark about the modern: modern art will be interested, or it will not be at all.

And so, obviously, the modern nude, that vulgar and obscene thing, the product of a decayed age, would violate those two norms. Unless, of course, one restores the conditions of the classical age…

The year before David presented his painting, the Return of Brutus to His Family, to the man who had commissioned it – the year 1789 – Voltaire’s body had been interred in the Pantheon. This is how Delecluze describes the scene:

“ The year before, Paris had witness a great ceremony that was also a great event: the translation of the body of Voltaire into the Pantheon. This celebration … gave occasion to recognize this general and sharp taste for the things of antiquity, and at the same time this feebleness that everybody felt in modifying the modern costume with borrowings made from the Romans and Greeks. Not only the car on which the remains of Voltaire were carried bore the impress of the reemerging taste for antiquity, but the literary people, the artists, the musicians, the actors and actresses which marched beside the chariot were dressed a l’antique, and carried in their hands signs of triump or instruments of music from pagan times, made of cardboard and covered with gold leaf paper.”

Thursday, April 02, 2009

what makes a goddess laugh?

According to Alain Roger, a philosopher, art continually references nature and continually denaturalizes it. When we look at art, then, we should be looking for the methods of denaturalization: "In whatever manner it operates, art always proceeds by denaturalization. But this is in turn covered by two opposing forms: by excess or default. The same support, such and such a part of the body, for instance, could, according to the place and the epoch, be made the object of a dilation or as well a reduction, which can go as far as annihilation. Nature erased, or hyperbolized. This is what we see, in a fashion particularly spectacular, in the artistic treatment of vulvas.”

Roger makes his case by going far back as we can go in finding representations of the vulva – he goes back to 30,000 BC and the first “Venus” statuettes found in many digs, such as Laugerie Basse. Roger believes that there is a structural constant here – when the statuette depicts the vulva, it dilates it and abolishes the face. Sometimes the whole head is reduced to a bump.

Roger contends that the whole figure of the woman is ithyphallicized – made into the semblance of an erect penis, “as if “nature”, being thus exhibited, must, at the limit, be denatured in its Other, as if the vulva can only accede to the view in annihilating the vultus, on the one side, and in ithyphallicizing itself, on the other. Nothing, or the Phallus.”

Roger ties this observation to the myth of Baubo. I’ve already mentioned Vernant’s essay on Baubo in a post written in 2007 (how time flies!). Baubo made Demeter laugh by raising her skirt and showing Demeter her privates. Baubo is associated with Gorgo and another Greek monster figure, Mormo. Vernant speaks of a genital face – a sort of folding of the body, or rather, a repetition of or projection of the genitals upon the face. And vice versa: “In place of the vulva, a vultus! This is what made Demeter laugh: a vulva, but vultuary, a turgid, congested, phallic face. She burst out laughing for this, this simulacra, his facetious facies, this fallacious phallus. One could, of course, hold to a much shorter reading: Demeter burst into laughter because, as Aristotle says, “the laughable is a part of the ugly”, especially if one recalls that, in the Parmenides, “the hair, the mud, the dirt” justly make up a part of the laughable, the “geloia”.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Artists and Models

In the 1852 biography of David, Delécluze gives us some invaluable testimony about the atmosphere in the atelier in which the Sabines project was going on. The ‘wind was changing” as he puts it in 1797. Two of David’s assistants, Mulard and Gautherot, were Jacobins. During the “rest times of the models”, “they did not fail to harangue” the rest of the students concerning republican doctrines.

However, on the other side was another student, Roland, a “Creole from Martinique, honest, brave, not very witty, excessively strong, who worked like a galley slave at painting to make himself a profession and repair the losses incurred by his family when the revolution ruined the colonies.” Roland was nicknamed the Furies, and he once encountered Gautherot in a café and, at the end of their political argument, challenged him to a duel. Which did not take place. While Gautherot was brave as against the attack by Roland, he had perceived that public opinion was no longer with him, and suddenly ceased his political haranguing. (50-51)

I don’t know if Flaubert read the biography, but there are passages that could certainly have come out of L’education Sentimentale:

“Ducis had a raucous, false and very low voice. During his campaigns in the Vendee, he had learned various republican songs, and particularly the one that begins: Le fanatisme insense, l’ennemi jure de notre liberte, est expire. Thus he sang it in such a way that when he pronounced the fa …, he would stop on the note, working for a minute or two on his painting, then, when nobody was expecting it, take up the song again: natisme insense. Then, after having cut it short with other intervals of more or less duration: l’ennemi jure… de notre liberte… he finished on a very grave and low note: est ex-pi-re!!!” (51)

My leap from Winckelmann to David, from Germany to France, or from Greece to Europe – all of these are leaps, moves, within the hide and seek of an overall game, the game of the white mythology. Delécluze, in his report of David’s early training – winning a prize, he was able to travel to Rome in 1775 – mentions Winckelmann, of course.

“No educated man nowadays doesn’t know of the immense step made by Heyne and Winckelmann in philology and archaeology applied to the general knowledge of antiquity. The effect of the lights that these two men disseminated on this matter was felt first in Germany, and then more particularly in Italy, where Winckelmann went to live to observe the antiquites, to study, and to write his History of Art… The number of statues retrieved from digs each day augmented the pool of riches for the scholars to study in their research on antiquity…” (127)

It was in this context that David lived in Rome in 1775-1779 and decided that the royal road was open for the regeneration of art. That road lead through ancient Greece.

But David’s path went through the tumults of a revolution, and the choice of contemporary subjects – the Death of Marat, the Swearing of the Oath on the Jeu de Paumes.

To be continued…

Monday, March 30, 2009

Putting a syllogism to your throat

In 1755, when Winckelmann wrote his essay on the imitation of Greek sculpture and painting, he had experienced, in his own life, little Greek sculpture and no Greek painting. He had not yet gone to Italy. He relied for his knowledge on the antiquities collected in Dresden – coins, drawing, copies of sculptures. However, his enthusiasm for the Greeks was all the greater for not his having trespassed on their reality. The book was so successful it made Winckelmann almost instantly famous. Diderot could be confident that his readers would know who Winckelmann was when, in the Salon of 1765, he compares him, at the beginning of the section on sculpture, to Rousseau, under the heading of the fanatic. Diderot’s sketch of the fanatic is worth citing, since one sees, here, definite intersignes with the Nephew of Rameau.

“I love the fanatics: not those who present you with some absurd formula of faith, and who, putting a knife to your throat, yell: Sign, or die; but those instead who, taken strongly by some particular and innocent taste, no longer see anything to which it is comparable, defending it with all their might; carrying into the houses and streets attended not by a lance, but by a syllogism, summoning both those who pass by and those who’ve been stopped to agree with their absurdity, or the superiority of the charms of their Dulcinea over all the other creatures of the world. They are amusing, the latter. They amuse me, and sometimes they astonish me. When by chance they have encountered the truth, they expose it with an energy that breaks and reverses everything. In the paradox, piling up images upon images, calling to their aid all the powers of eloquencee, all the figures, the bold comparisons, the tropes, the movements, addressing themselves to the sentiments, to the imagination, attacking the soul in its sensibility on all kinds of sides, the spectacle of their efforts is still beautiful. Such is Jean-Jacques Rousseau when he comes forward, bursting the chains, against the letters that he has cultivated his entire life long, the philosophy that he professed, the society of our corrupted cities, in the midst of which he burns to take up residence, and where he would be driven to despair if he were ignored, unknown, forgotten. However much he shuts the window of his hermitage that looks out on the capital, it is the only view he sees. In the depth of his forest, he is elsewhere. Such is Winckelmann, when he compares the productions of the ancient artist to the moderns.” (X, 355)

In fact, as Diderot pursues the argument, Winckelmann makes a mistake that is the opposite of Rousseau’s. Instead of basing art upon nature, he bases it upon the ancients. Diderot, however, is, in the end, on the side of the moderns, even if he owes a particular vision of the ancients to Winckelmann:

“But pose to him a second question, and ask whether it is better to study the ancient than nature, without the knowledge, the study and the taste of which the ancient artists, with all the particular advantages by which they were privileged, would have left us, nevertheless, merely mediocre works. Without hesitating, he will say, the ancients. And suddenly we see the man who has the most intelligence, heat and taste, negate it all, placing himself in the pretty midst of Toboso.”

Don Quixote, an underground Don Quixote, pursues all these comparisons, becomes all these fanatics – and will until there is breaking and reversal indeed. Diderot's tone, and the love of fanatics, makes him into the kind of medical observer, the observer of curiosities and manias, with which Don Quixote's path is strewn.

Yet Diderot, who, in the depths of the forest, sees, or so he claims, the forest, does not see how he has already accepted Winckelmann as his guide to the ancients. In fact, classical scholars do date the revolution in modern classical studies to Winckelmann. And not just to the more scholarly later work, when Winckelmann traveled to Italy and saw with his own eyes what he had praised in his essay. It is the essay itself to which Ludwig Curtius, the classical scholar, points in his famous 1926 essay about Winckelmann and his followers, both for its influence on classical research and for its broader influence on a diverse group – Curtius names Nietzsche, George and Lagarde – who took the Bildungsideal – the ideal development of the Greeks a la Winckelmann – as having a bearing not only on art, but on “life”. Winckelmann was an “enthusiast of a particular kind” who was “ruled by a passion… that sought not simply knowledge… but life, not simply scholarship, but the freedom of a new kind of humanity.” (Griechensehnsucht und Kulturkritik, Esther Sunderhaug, 268)


What is characteristic of the modern?
This question is, in a sense, a way of rephrasing the question, what is the human limit? My work goes forward like a game of hide and seek. I have to continually touch base. I’m continually pursued by It. When I touch base, I’m free, until another reiteration of the game.
A child’s definition of freedom.
In Winckelmann’s essay, there is one thing above all that characterizes the modern versus the ancient: the modern person disgraces himself when his nudity is represented. The Greek, on the contrary, is most himself when most unclothed.

The argument Winckelmann develops to prove this thesis moves from an Enlightenment geo-determinism that goes back to the 17th century (Montaigne explains his relativism by referring to truths that are different on one side of the Pyrenees than on the other). It is admittedly an odd argument to apply to a history as long and varied as that of Greece, but there were well known ways to explain how a constant factor like geography and climate could be countermanded by other social factors. Winckelmann is not, here, in a much different case than Montesquieu in De L’esprit des lois. Thus, we start out with the sky – the Himmel. Much as Goethe felt himself stripped, in a sense, of his Cimmerian darkness when he traveled to Greece, so, too, under the sky of Greece conditions are so benign that the human body doesn’t have to be wrapped up in too many clothes to be protected against the weather.

This is, of course, even more true of tropic climes, but Winckelmann ignores the obvious question of other warm climes. Instead, he sets other conditions coordinate with that sky: there is the healthy living of the Greeks; there is the lack of venereal or other diseases; and there is the culture of athleticism.

All of these conditions apply to the naked bodies of the Greeks. For nudity to be shameless, it must be ideally beautiful:

“The most beautiful bodies among use were no more similar to the most beautiful among the Greeks, perhaps, than Iphikles was to his brother, Hercules. The influence of a soft and pure sky effected the first development (Bildung) of the Greeks, although it was bodily exercises, begun at an early age, that gave this development the noble form. Take a young Spartan, who was the product of a hero and a heroine, never swaddled in childhood, who had been sleeping on the ground since his seventh year and in wrestling and swimming had been practicing since he’d developed his childish limbs. Put him next to a young sybarite our own time: and then judge which of the two an artist would chose for a model of a young Theseus, an Achilles, yes, even a Bacchus.” And, of course, the comparison with the New World Indian, which by this time we should expect:

Look at the swift Indian, who can run down a deer. How his bodily fluids flow, how swift and pliable are his nerves and muscles, and how lightly is the building of the whole body made. It is thus that Homer pictures his heroes for us, and his Achilles he characterizes specifically through the swiftness of his feet.”

It was practice that made the nude – it was practice in the nude that made the nude shameless.

"Bodies maintained through these practices the great and manly contour, which the Greek master gave to their sculpture, without mistiness or superfluous additions. The young Spartans had to appear before their elders naked every ten days, and those which were beginning to get fat had to go on a strict diet.”

It is, I admit, to quick and easy to take this route to the quotation from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But I will:

“Let me return to this dream. Its horror did not begin with Tomas's first pistol shot; it was horrifying from the outset. Marching naked in formation with a group of naked women was for Tereza the quintessential image of horror. When she lived at home, her mother forbade her to lock the bathroom door. What she meant by her injunction was: Your body is just like all other bodies; you have no right to shame; you have no reason to hide something that exists in millions of identical copies. In her mother's world all bodies were the same and marched behind one another in formation. Since childhood, Tereza had seen nudity as a sign of concentration camp uniformity, a sign of humiliation.”