Intro Philosophy 15: Humor, Modern Art & Postmodernism

Cat and Mouse Street ArtPhilosophy can and is used for creativity, using the doubts and insights to create, playing with the boundaries and tensions of the most important things.  Humor and art are two popular ways of using insights from philosophy to do this.  Last time, we saw Lewis Carroll was reacting critically to British Victorian society, showing the contradictions of authority and the assumptions we make in reasoning that are dependent upon our position in the situation.  Earlier, we saw Hegel attempting to create the entire history of human thought in terms of opposed points of view.  Today, we will consider similar cynical insights in the work of two early American masters of humor, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) and Groucho Marx (1890 – 1977), both of whom were reacting to the horror and absurdity of the times, Bierce to the Civil War and the Marx Brothers to WWI and the Great Depression.

Ambrose BierceAmbrose Bierce wrote bitterly about the Civil War and the corruption on both sides, Union and Confederacy, arguing that the war was not about noble ideals but the power of the military and the profits of corporations.  He moved to San Francisco in 1866,  wrote his famous Devil’s Dictionary, which was originally called the Cynic’s Word Book in 1906 when it was first published, and then disappeared in Mexico seeking to join the revolution in 1914. He had a brilliant gift with using humor to point out the ways we are all selfish and ignorant, attacking the politicians, the military, the rich, slavery, and American society.  Some Entries from his Devil’s Dictionary include:

Absurdity: A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion.

Academe: An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.

Academy: A modern school where football is taught.

Acquaintance: A person we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to.

Admiration: Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.

Anoint.: To grease a king or other great functionary already sufficiently slippery.

Beauty:The power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband.

Birth: The first and direst of all disasters.

Bore: A person who talks when you want them to listen.

Brain: an apparatus with which we think we think.

Cartesian: Relating to Descartes, a famous philosopher who wrote, “I think, therefore I am”, which could be improved as “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am”, as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made.

Christian: One who thinks the Bible is admirably suited to the needs of his neighbor.

Circus: A place where animals are permitted to see people acting like fools.

Conservative: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.

Debt: An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.

Dictionary: A device for cramping the growth of a language and making it inelastic.

Diplomacy: The patriotic act of lying for one’s country.

Disobedience: The silver lining to servitude.

Distance: The one thing the rich are willing to let the poor keep.

Duty: That which sternly impels us in the direction of profit, along the line of desire.

Edible: Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.

Education: That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the fool their lack of understanding.

Freedom: A political condition that every nation supposes itself to enjoy in virtual monopoly.

Future: The time when our friends are true and our happiness is assured.

Egotist: a person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

Hand: An instrument worn at the end of an arm and commonly thrust into someone’s pocket.

Hashish: There is no definition of this word.  No one knows what this word means.

History: An account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.

Impartial: Unable to perceive personal advantage from either side of a controversy.

Justice: That which the state sells the citizen in exchange for allegiance and taxes.

Lecturer: One with his hand in your pocket, his tongue in your ear and his faith in your patience.

Logic: The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.

Love: A temporary insanity curable by marriage.

Occident: The part of the world lying west (or east) of the Orient, largely inhabited by Christians, a powerful sub-tribe of the Hypocrites, whose principal industries are murder and cheating, called ‘war’ and ‘commerce’, which also happen to be the principal industries of the Orient.

Ocean: A body of water occupying two thirds of a world made for man, who has no gills.

Past: That part of Eternity with which we have a slight and regrettable acquaintance.

Patriot: The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.

Peace: A period of cheating between two periods of fighting.

Positive: Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.

Radicalism: The conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today.

Railroad: A device enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off.

Rational: Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection.

Reality: The dream of a mad philosopher.

Reason: To weigh probabilities in the scales of desire.

Responsibility: A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor.  In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.

Revolution: An abrupt change in the form of misrule.  In American history, that whereby the welfare and happiness of the people were advanced a full half-inch.

Rum: A fiery liquor that produces madness in total abstainers.

Saint: A dead sinner revised and edited.

Self-evident: Evident to one’s self and to nobody else.

Selfish: Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.

Suffrage: The right to vote for the man of another man’s choice.

Trial: A formal inquiry designed to prove the blameless character of judges, lawyers and jurors.

Truth: An ingenious compound of desirability and appearance.

Understanding: A cerebral secretion that enables on having it to know a house from a horse by the roof on the house.  Its nature and laws have been exhaustively expounded by Locke, who rode a house, and Kant, who lived in a horse.

Groucho MarxThe Marx Brothers were early absurdists like Camus, comedians of the 20s and 30s whose work was formative for American comedy.  Groucho Marx, the head of the group, was amazing with one liners that show a beautifully complex understanding of contradictions involving human pride and judgment, very much like Bierce.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

There is one way to find out if a man is honest; ask him! If he says yes you know he’s crooked.

Why a four-year old child could understand this!  Somebody find a four-year old child.

Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

All people are born alike – except Republicans and Democrats.

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.

I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.

Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?

Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.

Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.

After he was a successful movie star, Groucho was offered membership to a country club at a time when country clubs did not admit white Catholics and Jews.  Groucho, who was Jewish, famously replied in a telegram, “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”

In one of his movies, in reply to an art critic who says, “Art is art”, Groucho says, “Well, Art is Art, isn’t it? …And east is east and west is west… and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.”

WWI DestructionSimilar to the German Pessimism that influenced Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the horrors of WWI (1915-1917) brought great disillusionment with reason, science and society to European intellectuals, particularly for German and French youth who would have a huge impact on modern culture.  Here in the Bay Area, a very similar movement happened in reaction to the Vietnam War.  WWI used more machines and propaganda than ever before, and for this is often called the first modern war.  Oil became the fuel of war and vehicles, planes, jeeps, and after WWI, the Middle East was carved up by European powers as the source of oil.  This was the beginning of machine guns and air warfare, bombing runs, tanks.  Newspapers became mouthpieces of propaganda in times of war.  To European intellectuals who conversed across national lines, this showed logic and language being used for authority and empire in the name of reason.  The dominant scholars often sang nationalistic praise, particularly in History and Philosophy departments.

modern art I could do thatModern art and humor started from this point, putting tradition and authority out of joint, bringing out contradictions explicitly.  They help to simplify and focus work which is abstract and disconnected on purpose as a revolt against the positive collective power of the traditional.  During WWI young intellectuals from all over Europe converged in Zurich, Switzerland.  They shared an opposition to the war and traditional values.  To these thinkers, the stupidity and brutality of the modern age was clearly being sold to the masses through appeals to ‘reason’, ‘order’, ‘logic’, and ‘spirit’.  They found these terms to be hypocritical on a societal level, and declared a crisis of meaning: European civilization, and human reason, the new modern values, are a farce.  Thus, use absurdity to bring out the contradictions in the ‘reason’ and the ‘reasonable’.

Cabaret VoltaireSome of these similarly minded youth converged on the Cabaret Voltaire, a beer parlor run by Hugo Ball.  Jazz music was the new rage, violating old traditional standards.  Ball and his friend Huelsenbeck were looking for a fake French name for a dancer in a French dictionary when they found the word dada, ‘baby talk for horse, a child’s rocking horse’, effectively the child’s term ‘horsie’.  They decided that this word fit the movement that they felt was going on in Zurich.  The parlor became the first home and center.  Much art that was brutal and bizarre appeared here, a new turn that is critical for modern art and humor.  Out of Zurich, Switzerland and Berlin, Germany, the Dada movement quickly spread to Paris, New York, Moscow, Tokyo, and across the whole world.  Our modern culture, which is not simply Western but global, includes the deep and playful skepticism of DADA.  The Beatniks and Hippies of the Bay picked up the Motherwell anthology The Dada Poets and Painters as a major source and inspiration.

Dada Collage ADada’s two celebrated themes are brutalism, use of the obscene, such as sex, swearing, violence, intoxication, and nonsense, violating cultural norms, and simultaneity, the occurrence of many disconnected elements within a work, a resistance against the whole as coherent.  Collage involves using many different types of media blended together to create.  The Dadaists were famous for using newspaper type and pictures in collage, unseen before their time, used to portray the disconnected urban life.  This is both a celebration and a protest, loving yet fearing the contradictions of the world.  The Dadaists invented an impressive set of new art forms, including abstract sound poems, mechanical music, found art, and abstract painting.

Duchampes Fountain R Mutt 1917One of the most famous pieces of Dada art is the piece Fountain by Duchamp, a urinal with graffiti reading “R. Mutt 1917”, an early example of Found Art, as well as finding beauty in what many consider obscene.  I had a professor in grad school who argued that this was not art at all, but many would disagree.

SchwittersIn one of the first shows at the Cabaret Voltaire, Schwitters showed the audience a one letter poem, a card with a large ‘W’.  He then started to recite the poem, starting with a whisper and ending in a loud wailing scream.  Schwitters was an outlying member of the group, clearly ahead of his time.  Anticipating Burning Man camps by almost a hundred years, Schwitters began decorating his apartment by nailing various pieces of wood and found objects to the walls and painting everything white.  Unfortunately, during the bombing of Germany by allied forces in WWII, Schwitters’ apartment was destroyed, but from photos a recreation has been made that travels to museums throughout the world.

Schwitters' Apartment

Dada First Intl Exhibition 1920In April of 1920, Orp, Baargeld and Ernst put on an infamous Dada show in Cologne, France.  Sitting next to a tank of red tinted water with an alarm clock submerged at the bottom, Ernst had created a wooden sculpture with an axe chained to it.  A sign invited anyone who wished to use the axe to help destroy the sculpture.  In a Paris exhibit of Ernst’s work, invitations read: “at 22 o’clock the kangaroo, at 22:30 high frequency, at 23 o’clock distribution of surprises, after 23:30 intimacies.”  The exhibit itself was a Dada performance.  On stage and amongst the audience Breton, who would go on to become the “Pope of Surrealism”, munched a mouthful of matches, Ribemont-Dessaignes kept shouting, ‘It is raining on a skull’, Soupault and Tzara played a game of hide and seek, while Peret and Charchoune continuously shook hands.  These performances are early precursors to performance art which culminated in Situationism and Fluxus of the 60s and 70s, of which Yoko Ono was a prominent figure.

huelsenbeckHuelsenbeck’s many great quotes include:

“It’s a fucked-up foolish world.  You walk aimlessly along, fixing up a philosophy for supper.  But before you have it ready, the mailman brings you the first telegram, announcing that all your pigs have died of rabies, your dinner jacket has been thrown off the Eiffel Tower, your housekeeper has come down with the epizootic.  You give a startled look at the moon, which seems to you like a good investment, and the same postman brings you a telegram announcing that all your chickens have died of hoof and mouth disease, your father has fallen on a pitchfork and frozen to death, your mother has burst with sorrow on the occasion of her silver wedding (maybe the frying pan stuck to her ears, how do I know?).  That’s life, dear fellow.”

“The Germans are the masters of dissembling, they are unquestionably the magicians (in the vaudeville sense) among nations, in every moment of their life they conjure up a culture, a spirit, a superiority which they can hold as a shield in front of their endangered bellies.”

“The highest art will be that which in its conscious content presents the thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash.”

tzaraTristan Tzara was the foremost Dada manifesto writer, and he was famous for reading his manifestos interspersed in Dada performances.  He was a leader of the movement in Zurich, and then later in Paris, where the scene is considered to have migrated with him, later becoming the Surrealist scene of Breton, who wrote the many Surrealist manifestos.  Great quotes from Tzara’s Dada manifestos include:

“Dada remains within the European frame of weakness it’s shit after all but from now on we mean to shit in assorted colors and bedeck the artistic zoo with the flags of every consulate.”

 “Dada exists for no one and we want everybody to understand this because it is the balcony of Dada, I assure you.”

 Tzara repeats throughout the manifestos, “I love you so I swear I do adore you”, and “I still consider myself to be quite charming”.

“If I cry out: Ideal, ideal, ideal, Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, Boomboom, boomboom, boomboom,” I have given a pretty faithful version of progress, law, morality, and all other fine qualities that various highly intelligent men have discussed in so many books, only to conclude that after all everyone dances to his own personal boomboom, and that the writer is entitled to his boomboom.”

“I am against all systems, the most acceptable system is on principle to have none.  To complete oneself, to perfect oneself in one’s own littleness, to fill the vessel with one’s individuality, to have the courage to fight for and against thought, the mystery of bread, the sudden burst of an infernal propeller into economic lilies…”

“Here is the great secret: The thought is made in the mouth.  I still consider myself very charming.”

“A great Canadian philosopher has said: thought and the past are also very charming.”

(Here, the genders on ‘thought’ and ‘past’ are reversed, a common way of mocking Americans speaking French.)

 From Tzara’s Lecture on Dada (1922):

“I know that you have come here today to hear explanations.  Well, don’t expect to hear any explanations about Dada.  You explain to me why you exist.  You haven’t the faintest idea…You will never be able to tell me why you exist but you will always be ready to maintain a serious attitude about life.”

“Dada is not at all modern.  It is more in the nature of a return to an almost Buddhist religion of indifference….Dada is immobility and does not comprehend the passions…But with the same note of conviction I might maintain the contrary.”

“Nothing is more delightful than to confuse and upset people…The truth is that people love nothing but themselves and their little possessions, their income, their dog…If one is poor in spirit, one possesses a sure and indomitable intelligence, a savage logic, a point of view that cannot be shaken…  Always destroy what you have in you.  On random walks.  Then you will be able to understand many things.  You are not more intelligent than we, and we are not more intelligent than you.”

“We are well aware that people in the costumes of the Renaissance were pretty much the same as the people of today, and that Chouang-Dsi (Zhuang Zi, the second patriarch of Daoism who we studied) was just as Dada as we are.”

Tzara advocated automatism as an artistic method, the creation of art through automated processes that produced spontaneous patterns and beauty only partly controlled by the artist.  Later modern art made much use of automatism.  Tzara wrote:

“To make a Dadaist poem

Take a newspaper.

Take a pair of scissors.

Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.

Cut out the article.

Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.

Shake it gently.

Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.

Copy conscientiously.

The poem will resemble you.

And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.”

André_BretonSurrealism followed Dada in the use of the obscene and simultaneity, springing from the Dada group of Paris who collected around Breton, who became known as the Pope of Surrealism, its main manifesto writer like Tzara was for Dada.  Influenced by the work of Freud, it often involves dreamlike fantasy and sexuality.  Prefiguring the work of Donna Haraway, the Postmodern philosopher who suggested we adopt the myth that we are all cyborgs and hybrids in the age of computers and feminism, Surrealists were also fascinated by the hybridity of the living and dead, of humanity living in cities with lives full of devices and mechanics.  Recall that much of the mechanics of Europe comes from the golden ages of China and Islam, which then continued to evolve during the Renaissance and European Enlightenment.  Today, surreal films still revolve around the play between humans and machines, found in the work of Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, and Shinya Tsukamoto.

Alfred_JarryLike Schwitters, one of the most interesting and outlying members of the Surrealists was Alfred Jarry (“Zshar-ree”).  Jarry, who was very much the Hunter S. Thompson of his day (before Hawaiian shirts and LSD were invented), hated bourgeois middle class conformity and enjoyed shaking people up.  He often carried guns, which he would fire whenever he had the chance, often at odd times.  It is said that he once tried to light a stranger’s cigarette with a pistol.  The intellectuals of Paris began inviting him to their gatherings, where he would entertain them with impossible bizarre scientific theories he would make up on the fly, which he called Pataphysics.

Ubu-JarryHis infamous play, Ubu Roi (or King Ubu), scandalized audiences when the main character, Pa Ubu, strolled out onto the stage and belted out, “SHIIIIIIIIIIT!”, causing half the crowd to boo and leave, and the other trying to shout down the offended.  No one had ever used swear words in the Paris theater before.  In the plot of the play, Pa Ubu takes over Poland, demands everyone give him everything, declares war on Russia, but then discovers that fighting is hard, and flees.  The play was only put on twice, but it got everyone in the theater scene talking about whether this was the freeing of drama or its destruction.

Jarry’s poem Fable is an excellent example of the Surrealist fascination with the living as dead and dead as living, symbolized by Jarry as a love affair between a can of corned beef and a lobster:

A can of corned beef, on a chain like opera glasses,

Saw a lobster pass by which resembled it like a brother.

It was protected by a thick shell

On which it was written that inside,

like the can of corned beef,

it was boneless,

(Boneless and economical);

And underneath its curled-up tail

It apparently was hiding a key to open it.

Smitten with love, the sedentary corned beef

Declared to the little live self-propelling can

That if it were willing to acclimate itself

Next to it in earthly shop windows,

It would be decorated with a number of gold medals.

rauschenbergConceptual art is the later development in the 50s, 60s and 70s that followed Dada and Surrealism. Rauschenberg was asked to make a contribution to the Iris Clert Gallery’s exhibit of found art, he submitted a postcard on which he wrote, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so”.  Rauschenberg also erased a De Kooning drawing, then framed and exhibited as a new work.  He contacted De Kooning beforehand, and De Kooning decided that it must be something he would miss or the work would not be meaningful.

ManzoniManzoni drew lines of certain lengths, rolled up the paper strips, put them in boxes labeled with date and line length, sold as artwork.  He also sold balloons of ‘artist’s breath’, and his own crap in cans for their weight in gold.  He famously signed people as if they were his art.  Warhol created screen prints of soup cans put on shelves like canned goods and Marilyn Monroe titled, “a hundred Marilyns are better than one”.

La Monte Young composed a poem for tables, a performance piece of dragging furniture around on stage to make noises.  He was one of the early performance artists who created ‘happenings’, often including audience members to take down the “fourth wall”.  Simone Forti created some Fluxus happenings as performance art, instructing one audience member to try to lie down, the other try to tie first to the wall.  Morris created a wooden box with a tape recorder inside that played a loop with the sound of own construction.

In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein wrote that the sentence, “A Rose Has no Teeth” does not make immediate sense, but it can be put in a context that makes it make sense.  Nauman read Wittgenstein, made a plaque with this sentence on it and nailed it to a tree knowing that the tree would slowly grow over the plaque.

john_baldessariBaldessari in 1971 had his art students cover an exhibit room with “I will not make any boring art” as if they were kids being punished at school.

An Oak Tree 1973 by Michael Craig-Martin born 1941Craig-Martin put a glass of water on a glass shelf installed into a museum wall, and called it An Oak Tree.  In a dialogue posted next to the work, a critic asks if we are truly supposed to believe that the glass of water is an oak tree just because the artist says it is, and the artist replies that the glass of water is indeed now an oak tree.  This is similar to Humpty Dumpty in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, as well as Wittgenstein’s argument against private language use.

Nest Group One Meter CloserThe Nest Group staged a performance piece in 1978 called Let’s Come One Meter Closer, where several of the group’s artists in various places around world each dug a meter deep hole and stood in it.  Similar to Heidegger’s understanding of distance, that we are nearer to that which is important to us than we are to that which is physically proximate, the Nest Group is mocking highly coordinated action that results in little intimacy or meaning.

Barbara KrugerThere have been many influential feminist conceptual artists, including Barbara Kruger, who worked as a designer for Mademoiselle Magazine before creating visual art in the 80s that challenged beauty images, gender stereotypes, and power in a culture infused with mass advertising.  Like Dada collage, Kruger uses simple type and stock images to make powerful statements about identity and conformity in the age of mass consumerism and advertising.


Body is Battleground04057-(BK)

Kruger You Are Not YourselfPOSTMODERNISM

Postmodernism was flourishing at the same time as later modern art, during the mid 60s, 70s and 80s, spreading from French philosophers influenced by Poststructuralism such as Lyotard, Deleuze, Baudrillard and Derrida.  Some have called Nietzsche the first Postmodernist, and some say that we are still living in Postmodern times, unlike Latour who argued as an Antimodernist that ‘modernity’ never happened.  Postmodernism is characterized by a free play of ideas, forms and influences in the wake of Poststructuralists such as Foucault and their criticism of universal structures and systems.  Like Nietzsche, Postmodernism embraces self-contradiction, often in the form of hybridization, mixing and matching formerly opposed forms, ideas and cultures, embracing the Hegelian Other as Sartre would have wanted.  Recall that for Nietzsche creativity was not outright rejection of morality, tradition and culture but free interpretation and use of everything.

hegel upsidedownPostmodernism reverses conceptions that arose with the European Enlightenment and modernity about the progress of reason and the exclusive identity of Western culture.  Recall that Hegel saw history as a necessary unfolding of European progress through reason without the possibility of regression.  The accelerating development of science and technology which originally supported exclusive understandings of Western identity is also undermining the distinction via counterculture.  In the 1980s, this included the use of video technology, and then in the 1990s it was extended considerably by the explosion of the internet.  The Bay Area, one of the most diverse places in America, is a major center of fusion culture as well as internet innovation.  While there are countless interesting examples of Postmodern art, particularly architecture and literature, we will focus on the major influential Postmodern philosophers and their core ideas.

Jean-Francois_LyotardJean-Francois Lyotard (1924 – 1998), pronounced “leo-TAR”, is often mentioned with Postmodernism because he was centrally concerned with the impact it was having on thought and culture.  He is of the same family as the famous trapeze artist known for his one-piece gymnastic garb, for whom the song The Man on the Flying Trapeze was composed and from whom the gymnastic wear gets its name.  Lyotard taught in Algeria, Brazil and California before settling in Paris in 1968, the year of the New Left student protests in Paris, an event that had a major impact on the French Postmodernists.

lyotard-postmodern conditionLyotard’s most famous work, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), is regarded as one of the central works of Postmodernism, sometimes called the Postmodernist Bible.  Lyotard argues that all cultures legitimate themselves through the telling and retelling of narratives, stories that give each culture purpose and meaning.  At a time when computer technology was just beginning to bring vast changes to communication, thought and culture, Lyotard argues that the training of critical minds is being eclipsed by storage of data and governments are being replaced by multinational corporations.

totem pole vs street lightAll of this must be legitimated by a narrative, and so the story of the European Enlightenment and the Age of Reason separating the West from the rest becomes central to the creation of meaning, a metanarrative.  The heroic West, it is said, brings freedom to the world through democracy and reason to the world through science.  Lyotard compares this story of salvation to similar metanarratives found in Christianity and Marxism.  Without the faithful retelling and circulation of this metanarrative, Moderns, as Latour would say, would have little idea what their culture means.

Work is Freedom AuschwitzUnfortunately, Lyotard argues, the metanarrative was unmasked for many by the horrors of WWII, particularly the manufactured genocide at Auschwitz, which spawned the countercultural attacks on the metanarrative of the fifties, sixties and seventies.  While all can agree that Western culture engages in the practices of science and democracy, counterculturals begin wondering aloud if the story of progress is merely a mask for brutality and whether the West is merely like the rest, wallowing in ignorance and authoritarianism.  Consider Jack Kerouac, who wrote of the “beat generation”, the beatnik youth of the fifties who turned from American conformity, tired and disillusioned after WWII and unfaithful to the Korean War and consumerism.  Consider the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties, that called for revolutionary changes to the American practice of democracy which openly excluded and oppressed many Americans who were seen as Other due to race and gender.

lyotard dissensusLyotard argues that Postmodernism is a playful engagement with multiple conflicting micro-narratives that have emerged in the space created by the questioning of the grand metanarrative.  He was predictably attacked by critics who argued that Postmodernism and the end of the metanarrative was itself a new metanarrative.  Lyotard countered that the metanarrative of the progress of the West was not dead, but actively contradicted by some countercultures.  For many, the dominance of First World, the environmental impact of technology and the supremacist nature of the metanarrative is unquestioned, either out of ignorance or with regret that has no faith in an alternative.

Our obsession with precision limits the scope of our vision.  It is this limitation that modern art and Postmodern thought hope to counteract by disturbing the dominant forms of cultural coherence.  Critics of Lyotard and Postmodernism continue to ask whether this is a cure for the condition or merely another symptom.  Is Postmodernism, like the narrative of modernity, genuine liberation, or is it merely a safety valve to accommodate scholars and gallery goers who are disenchanted but still require entertainment?

deleuzeGilles Deleuze (1925 – 1995), pronounced “duh-LUZE”, wrote his first books on Hume and Nietzsche, and then several with Felix Guattari, pronounced “ga-ta-REE”, including Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980).  Between these periods of early work and later collaborations, Deleuze wrote his central work, Difference and Repetition (1968) a year before he was recommended for a professorship by Foucault.

campbells warholDeleuze argues that all claims to objectivity requires repetition, which gives the appearance of coherent concepts and practice.  Consider the example of tribal narratives chanted in song, religious rituals and modern academics continuously using the terms ‘reason’ and ‘science’.  Recall Tzara wrote, “If I cry out: Ideal, ideal, ideal, Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, Boomboom, boomboom, boomboom, I have given a pretty faithful version of progress, law, morality, and all other fine qualities that various highly intelligent men have discussed in so many books, only to conclude that after all everyone dances to his own personal boomboom, and that the writer is entitled to his boomboom”.

Nietzsche painting munchFollowing Nietzsche, also a favorite of Tzara, Deleuze says that all great thinking is a dangerous rupture of repetition and consistent coherent categories, a painful birth of the formerly impossible into the world of possibility.  Philosophy is not the discovery of universal truth that Plato, Descartes and Kant sought, but the creation of new concepts.  This is much like late Wittgenstein, who said that description must take the place of explanation.  Reason is not entirely consistent with itself, universal or objective, and it need not be to create useful ideas.  Philosophy, science and art are different cultures of the creation of concepts and meaning.  Deleuze discusses the speed of light and absolute zero, useful in science but also conceived as practically unattainable ideals.

BaudrillardJean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), pronounced “bo-dree-YAHR” was a French philosopher, sociologist and photographer.  Barthes and Bourdieu were both on his doctoral thesis committee.  In the seventies, after he became a professor, he made many trips to America and Japan, fascinated with consumerism, mass communication and advertising and the effect these were having on culture and the production and consumption of meaning.  Against Marx, Baudrillard argued that society is not ultimately about production, but consumption.  Baudrillard is much like Nietzsche, if Nietzsche had wandered through malls, Disneyland and Vegas until he had given up hope in individual creativity and given in to nihilism.  Baudrillard is known for being the most pessimistic of the major Postmodernists, and accepts that he is a nihilist.  He acquired a following in the late eighties and nineties.

The Wachowski siblings, who wrote the Matrix, were influenced by Baudrillard, their Matrix an attempt to fuse the Deceiving Demon of Descartes and the simulated hyper-reality of Baudrillard.  In one scene Neo, the protagonist, uses a book by Baudrillard to hide items on his desk.

kruger gloves sex appealFor Baudrillard, cultures seek a full closure for meaning and truth which always escapes their grasp.  The meaning of the thing is never the thing itself, the sign and its significance always beyond its signification.  Following Nietzsche, Baudrillard argues that we are seduced by meaning, and that all acceptance of interpretation is seduction.  While seduction is not necessarily the worst of things, in modern commercial society the seduction has become a sickly, unfulfilling hypnosis, the dull lull offered by hours of television and endless consumption of manufactured products.  Baudrillard argues that we no longer live in what can be called simply reality, but rather in a simulation, a virtual reality, what he calls the Hyperreal.  Our manufactured hyperreality is reality, but mass produced, much like the art of Andy Warhol in the sixties, such as his screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and tomato soup cans.

Warhol MarilynSet

The more we try to manufacture reality to complete it and enclose it, the more hyperreal it becomes, both less than and more than real, and thus unreal.  Baudrillard says that pornography is hyper-sex.  Similarly, fast food can be called hyper-food, television can be called hyper-experience, and advertising can be called hyper-seduction, the mass production of desire as Lyotard argues.  Baudrillard calls these ‘simulacra’ (each a ‘simulacrum’ singularly), simulations or copies.  The copy is real, but it is also, in reality, a knock-off.

627f2f0b926840f8318efce9bf11390bc92aca2d_mBaudrillard argues that cultures are founded on exchange, and when everything exchanged is mass-produced, things are more symbolic than they are individual objects.  Drinking a Pepsi can be somewhat satisfying, but it is more about the signification that it satisfies than its actual satisfaction for the individual drinking it.  It signals to others that you are satisfied more than it satisfies.  Culture is driven by consumption, and the hyper-consumption of unnecessary products creates a reality and life experience that is more symbolic and mythological than real and significant.  This does not mean nothing will happen, but that each event loses individual significance.  Clearly, both Lyotard and Baudrillard are very Nietzschean, but Lyotard is optimistic about cultural freedom and Baudrillard pessimistic about cultural consumption.

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