Monday, November 28, 2011


Greyhoos responds to my response to his Burden piece:

"One thing: Doomed actually dragged on for nearly 45 hours, not minutes. Burden later said that going into the piece, he'd expected it'd only end up lasting a few hours, tops. [Ed- I changed the time length in the original piece. A critical typo on my part].

Funny that you mention the Milgram experiments. Initially I'd though of referencing them, but that wound up being one of the tangents (among many) that I jettisoned for the sake of brevity. Instead, I chose to just imply the matter through more generalized references to the whole matter of socialization.

But yes, I believe you're probably right. Milgram's experiments have always been widely cited, and I'm fairly certain they were at the time in question (even in the years shortly before he finally published his own book). And Milgram's experiments fit in a certain broader discussion that was going on at the time; an anxious discussion about the character of modern society, whether people were becoming more callous and unfeeling -- whether there was a pervasive loss of empathy starting to emerge. Milgram's experiments were usually cited in the context of their relation to the military and to the war in Vietnam, but they also discussed in a more generalized psycho-social context, as well.

Another example that comes to mind: The famous 1964 case of the slaying of Kitty Genovese also fit into this broader discussion. Of course, we were to find out years later that initial reports of the killing had been exaggerated and distorted by the press for the sake of optimal dramatic/sensationalits effect. Nonetheless, it dovetailed with the dominant anxiety about the direction society might be heading. (Additionally, it also dovetailed perfectly with the anti-urban sentiments that were growing at the time -- since it was allegedly urban environments that bred such "dehumanized" behavior.)

So yeah, I'd say your hunch is most likely correct. These were all ideas that were very much "in the air" during that time.

I think it's also notable to point out that, like Burden's pieces, the Milgram experiments are often used in abbreviated format as diagnostics working towards a confirmation bias for those predisposed to damn the modern world, to paint the banality of evil as a simple relationship between man and his master, one that could be directly abrogated with the elimination of pitiless and vile leaders.

But Milgram's experiments capture a more complex dynamic. Subjects only rarely carried out their duties without resistance or frustration. Each of their reactions were different, but nearly all of them were emotionally and even physically depleted from stress by the end of the experiment. In the end, the only thing that binded them was their obedience to authority, their respect for the authorship of the experiment and faith in the institutions supporting it (the experiments took place at Yale, where I currently work). Much of this can probably be attributed to what K-Punk has called "class unconsciousness"- that ingrained/planted feeling of inferiority that causes the lower castes to accept the wisdom and moral authority of those above them. Who are the plebian subjects to question a group of Ivy League scientists? If the man with the heart condition's life was really in danger, surely these learned men of science would do something about it, right?

One can only speculate without having been there, but I'd imagine the curators of Burden's performance underwent a similar anxiety regarding Burden's exhibition as waiting for a sign that the performance was over(that sealed envelope that never arrivived). But who were they to stand in the way of an artist's vision? If there is a deity in the art world, it is autonomy. If Burden wanted to die under that plate of glass, who were they to deny him that last statement- a performance that could not be fully comprehended understood until it was complete, until the clock was smashed and time had stopped for Burden, either figuratively as a dead man or literally as it so happened to play out? Art's audiences are wont to take art often more seriously than it takes itself (as Greyhoos's article deftly points out), often confusing, or even substituting, art's staged realities with the ones outside of the gallery. It's hard not to see why, what with the implied theater of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Patty Hearst, and, as Stockhausen infamously noted, the September 11th attacks.

I remember seeing a discussion online a few years ago about the allegations of animal abuse in Jordowsky's The Holy Mountain which lead a few posters to declare that no amount of dead birds who be too few to create a masterpiece of beauty like the film in question. Some even declared that human sacrifice would be warranted, with one poster even offering himself up.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Experiment Requires That You Continue

Very interesting post by Greyhoos at Our God is Speed on Chris Burden. I'd heard of Shoot and seen some of Through the Night Softly, but he has a really interesting CV. Of notable interest is Doomed (curious about whether this was the titled before or after the event), in which the artist held himself under a plate of glass with a clock above it for 45 hours. Burden had filled out an envelope with instructions to the museum staff to end the exhibition at any point they saw fit, but did not actually give the envelope to the staff. Thus, it was up to them to sense if Burden was putting himself in any true danger and stop the project themselves.

"And as it turned out, Burden hadn't thought that it would take them so long to act. At most, he expected Doomed would wind up last a few hours. In an interview given some years later, Burden said that as the hours ticked by and the work began to stretch towards its third day, he realized his miscalculation and began to wonder if the attendees were going to continue to stand back and leave him to die."

Greyhoos rightly points to Kafka as a precedent for this piece, but it also got me thinking of Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiments wherein participants willfully shocked what they understood to be a man with a heart condition, seemingly to death, because a research scientist instructed them to. In Doomed, art too was acting as an authority. The passivity of the spectator allows him or her to mitigate actions framed by their own set of reality principles. In a sense, Burden's piece exposed the religiosity of the artistic performance. Burden created an environment that screamed for intervention, but discouraged it by the faith of the spectators in the totality of the act. In a system abiding by this kind of logical detachment, belief and authority in and of themselves are arbitrary.

As I push the wrong buttons, I disappear

review of the collaboration between The Flaming Lips and Lightning Bolt

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Occupied States of America

Despite everything that has happened in the past few days with the reports of fascistic violence against peaceful protesters (and deafening silence in the Obama administration), Occupy Wall Street remains the most potent political movement the left has seen in decades. Their very refusal of terms of compliance and defiance of the calls to issue a list of demands are perhaps their greatest strengths and their most revolutionary concept- the idea that we don't need to wait for millionaires to tell us to cut their taxes. We don't have to beg the corporations not to poison us, not to push us into privation, not to enslave us to jobs designed to service the luxury of those who forever remain above us, not to steal from the collective goodwill of government while lobbying against the levelling power of the state, et al. State and private power are right to be afraid of OWS. What they are proposing is an end to the end of history, a cap on the final judgment of capitalism as the epitomical system of the evolved man, the beginning of the end of settling for the way things are, a final stripping of the institutional chains of bondage that grip us all.

Family obligations prohibit me from participating in the mass actions. This is perhaps the first time in my life though that I've felt optimistic about the future. Yes, ever. As a father, I fear bestowing upon my daughter the dread I felt growing up that adulthood was a continual series of disappointments and compromises, that the entirety of life was a downward spiral that descended from an epoch of community and nurturing to a lonely death wherein the majority of hours lived were spent away from family and loved ones, parked behind a desk where one's intellect is undermined, individuality is suppressed, creativity is wasted, self-worth is decimated, and empathy is systematically proven redundant. After graduating to the "real world", the world of capitalist realism, the opportunities available, even to someone of relative privilege like myself, have mirrored all my most terrifying fears about the end of childhood. I can offer then nothing but solidarity to a cause who refuses this reality for my daughter and for future generations. Let us all be the last men to live for a mistake.

As OWS dominates the news, every other bit of everyday business feels trite and silly. You feel like history is happening without you an you're just a bystander. You can even sense the envy in those who take the system so seriously, those who hold an enormous stake in the success of the status quo (my work requires interaction with quite a few of them). They want to believe that OWS is a hiccup, the work of lazy assholes afraid of a hard day's work and under a spell of mass hypnosis permeating from an ideological vacuum. The apprehension is strong because the potential of OWS's success is far more frightening than its eventual withering and dispersal. The protesters succumbing to infighting and its cooption by petty showmen and hucksters is far more in line with our cynicism. It has historical precedent in the hippies-turned-yuppies, Obama, Kerry, Bansky books in Urban Outfitters, Che Guevara t-shirts, "Think Different" campaigns, and vanguard music in car ads. OWS can come off as just another space for capitalism to itself occupy, a consumer populace that its own mechanisms can accommodate.

If OWS does manage to pull through and create something new in spite of the friction and abrasion of all the history repeating surrounding it, it'll leave the guardians of the new a bit naked, like Adam and Eve at the end of Paradise Lost- finally free of the deadbolts of the Garden, yet still burdened by the original sin of having created this massive empire of suffering in the first place. No one knows what happens next if OWS achieves its goal of revolution. We can only be sure that whatever the next step is, it needs to happen together or all of it will have been for nothing. As Jack Shephard is wont to say, "we either live together or we die alone".

That's why it's important to not give in to the demands of the old world who want to break this movement down into digestible soundbites or a scriptable action-item list. This is not a reality TV narrative and OWS is not looking to prove a thesis using the scientific method. The fact that the source of this frustration eludes the wealthy and the powerful only proves how disconnected they are from the world they command.

We all know what's wrong; everything, everything, and everything- the whole goddamned rotten parasitic system, an idea rotting away like a virus in the hearts and minds of an entire race. An entire species working diligently on a massive, complex, multinational project of self-extinction. A planet whose ballooning population is under work orders to render the earth uninhabitable. And if we don't follow our instructions to make the world slightly nicer for a few at the expense of the welfare of the many, we may lose our sweet source of sustenance, the nectar of Capital, which holds in its hands the tools of survival (doctors, food, housing, protection from corporate predators).

But it's not the bosses and the managers who are issuing the orders, mind you. No, they're just the conduits and they're just as compromised as the rest of us, with very little power to break free of their business models without betraying their legal obligation to the shareholders. No, our orders and theirs come from Capital itself, a self-preservational artificial intelligence that can adapt to any state or social model, can incorporate any tradition or custom, and can accommodate any desire. Frankly speaking, it's everywhere, controlling everything, commanding everyone.

An earlier movement in the 90s sought to "reclaim" the territories that the globalizing tentacles of Capital had conquered, but the language or "reclamation" suggests a mere changing of the guard, an exchange of power. Much better to occupy then, to simply "be" in a space whose authority is manifested aribitrarily or illegitimately. In a sense, OWS is existential, because its resistance comes in the form of being. If there is a demand coming out of OWS, it's a cry for that age old philosophical leap of faith, the acknowledgement of the self-outside-of-the-self; the other. Since we can never occupy another person's consciousness, we can never truly know them. We can never truly be clear of their motives or their feelings. We have to trust them, despite all the horrible shit they've enacted upon their own species. We have to trust others, as King and Christ did up until the moment they were killed. We have to contrast the human animal to property, propriety, ideology, and territory. If we don't want future generations to continue growing up in fear of dying alone, we need to stop pretending that we're alone. We're all occcupying everything together. We're already here. The rest is illusion.