Beyond Utopia?: Response from Kevin Hamilton
"From Agonistics to Aporias"

Thursday, May 3, 2012

(L) Richard Helmer's forensic montage of Mengele onto Mengele's alleged skull. (R) Adam Harvey's demonstration of makeup and hair styles devised to fool facial detection software
[On April 26 and 27, 2012, the Unit for Criticism partnered with the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities for a conference, Beyond Utopia? Art, Theory, and the Coming of “Spring.” Below is one of three closing roundtable responses from Kevin Hamilton, Assistant Professor of New Media at the University of Illinois.]

"From Agonistics to Aporias : A Provocation on Seeing Through (and to) Utopias"

Written by Kevin Hamilton (New Media)

As a practitioner in the visual arts, I’ve especially appreciated the ways in which scholarship on the secular has called out the situatedness of our sensoria, the shape of our epistemologies.

In art and especially in art education, critique is not only alive and well, but constitutes a large part of our daily practice. On a daily basis, working and teaching artists observe, reflect, and reform in relation to their created objects and experiences. This quest for greater understanding through reflective and reflexive action is what makes theorists and artists such close cousins in the academy.

Yet, as has been made increasingly clear in scholarship on the secular (and in recent debates around the status of art as research), artists and theorists sometimes fail to widen the scope of this critical project to include examination of our own sensoria, the ways in which we perceive. As Talal Asad once said: “Power is exerted not only in the ways people are allowed to speak or not speak, but in what it is that makes sense to them. Rather than thinking of power only in terms of the question of freedom of expression and its limitations, we should also pay attention to the kinds of power that go into the formation of listening subjects, of subjects who can open their minds to something that is strange or uncomfortable or distasteful.”

In my experience of past and present utopias of contemporary art, I’ve noticed a relatively unquestioned understanding of the “listening subject” as liberated through sensory disruption, or oppressed through sensory ease or harmony. Others have written about the value or prestige associated with “difficult” reading experiences in modernism. But we might extend such scholarship, complemented by work from critics of the secular, to ask how the experience of sensory disruption itself, even of traumatic perception, has been harnessed by avant-gardes as an instrumental means to the achievement of secular liberal utopias.

The experience of unresolvable visual conditions, of perceptual paradox, prevails as a metaphor for political liberation throughout modernism. We see this in the reliance on Gestalt psychologies of perception by modernism’s earliest pedagogues in the German Bauhaus or Soviet Vkhutemas schools, and in the curricula they spawned as émigrés to the United States. In their hands, visualities confound not through the co-presentation of earthly and heavenly beings - as in other approaches to epiphanic sight - but through the irresolvable “double-exposure” of the brain’s photographic plate to light from disconnected apertures. Metaphors of confounded vision as a path to political liberation abound in the epistemologies of Gyorgy Kepes, Heinz Von Foerster, or even contemporary creativity guru John Maeda. The work of these and other figures extend earlier modern attempts to disassemble or disprove a viewer’s sensorium, only to reconstruct it by other values.

Such unequivocal value placed on the disrupted or even traumatized perceptual state finds a ready parallel in critical theory’s tendency toward agonistic language in responses to state violence. Answering strategies with tactics, many critics of the state choose to engage hegemony on its own militaristic terms. Theologian John Milbank described this in terms of postmodern theory’s reliance on an “ontology of violence,” and posited instead an “ontology of peace” adapted from medieval approaches to sense, language, and subjectivity. One also might think here of Coco Fusco’s understandable suspicion of the critical left’s reliance on spatial logics and mapping metaphors, or Caren Kaplan’s examination of displacement as an unquestioned, abstract good in modern and postmodern critical aesthetics.

At least one predominant critical subject in late-modern utopian thought might best be described as a roaming, ready-to-fight subject who wields the confusion of empirical senses as her primary tool of liberation and defense. I would suggest that this subject is ill prepared to accept either the strange or the stranger.

Neither pacifism nor aesthetic harmony offers an easy alternative to this vision, though both are capable of appropriately acknowledging the real struggles at stake. What is needed at least is a more complex picture of the “sensory break” as occurring at diverse kinds of moments for diverse subjects, to better and worse ends. The work of this year’s Unit seminar offered abundant examples for such an examination.

I offer here some examples - from within and without our conversations - of both bisociative sensory disruptions and unexpected eruptions of sensory harmony (or even pleasure). Here we see sensory disruption as both a path to liberation and a means of regulation. In this list we encounter aesthetic harmony as both a revolutionary act and an oppressive one.

Consider from our proceedings the following opportunities for sensory disruption, clang responses, or bisociative thought:
  • From Eyal Weizman’s account, consider the forensic pathologist’s double-exposed photographs of Mengele from the inside out.
  • Or, in other confounding image from Weizman’s talk, recall the image of analyst Marc Garlasco, inspecting the ruins of buildings he helped target in order to reconstruct events for possible human rights abuse prosecution.
  • Recall a singular courtroom sketch of Israeli judges, gathered like military strategists around a model of the West Bank, transposing a juridical space with a strategic one.
  • From Noha Radwan’s account of three Egyptian novellas, consider the place of meta-fictional stories in the context of a hegemonic archive: marvel at the paradoxical verity offered by a “true” story set in a place and time where only the regime’s official stories are recorded.
  • From >Mohammed Bamyeh’s account of Egypt and Tunisia in “Arab Spring”, the question of a spark - “last straw” events as both unremarkable and uniquely unbearable.
  • Or, from my own research into the rhetorics of nuclear armament, the incredible paradox of the 1996 International Court of Justice ruling on the legality of Nuclear Weapons:
“It follows from the above-mentioned requirements that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law;

However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.”

A photograph from Tahir Square, provided by Mohammed Bamyeh.
Looking through our week of discussion, we can also find some moments of sensory harmony, of the eruption of ordered perception in the midst of disorder, for good or for ill.
  • We might think of the role of poetry in Tahrir Square protests, as discussed by Noha Radwan. Recall the rhymed couplet as a shared breath, a common rhythm.
  • Similarly, recall the instrument of speech known as the People’s Microphone, and how OWS uses it to help foment through performance a space of harmony and solidarity, especially during tense and potentially violent encounters.
  • From Bamyeh’s photographs of Tahrir Square, we might recall the harmonious visual variety achieved through the growing pastiche of hand-written screeds, spread across on the ground. Taped-together scraps of boxes and paper add up to enormous lists of hopes and ideas for the new republic; an aesthetic heterogeneity just seems right.
  • Turning to more disturbing moments of harmony or sensory ease, we might remember the images from Amnesty International’s Eyes on Darfur project, whose interface features the shockingly easy and apparent “hide destroyed structures” button. As in so much design for information and mapping, utter chaos and absence of meaning is reduced to a simple gesture.
  • Also recall here the ease with which, in Saba Mahmood’s presentation, a letter to Obama by an Evangelical Christian group painted a picture of Coptic Christian women as seduced against their will by Islamic men. There, a complex cultural, ethnic and religious phenomenon is reduced to an easy-to-perceive picture for the purposes of orienting and defining religious freedom in relation to the State.
Throughout these episodes, sensory harmony and epistemological confusion occur at very different points along very different paths. Experiences of aesthetic beauty are more than indexes of agreement or fascist coercion. Likewise, encounters with perceptual or cognitive confusion are not limited to narratives of liberation.

I would suggest that these moments of harmony or dis-union take place where they do as groups move back and forth on the path from justice (or ethics) to law, then from law back to justice again. I’m reminded here of the generous inclusion of Gene Ray’s essay on a “New Cosmopolitics” for 2003’s Territories exhibition catalog, a publication occasioned largely by the exclusion of Weizman and Segal’s project from the UIA World Congress of Architecture in 2002.

In that essay, a closing one for the book, Ray breaks from the more agonistic frame of the book’s larger project to examine the pacifist “city of refuge” tradition as applied by the International Parliament of Writers. Significant here is Ray’s turn to Derrida’s essay, “The Force of Law,” wherein Derrida contrasts the essentially non-deconstructible, incalculable and even confounding nature of justice with the more constructed and regulated nature of law.

A photograph from Tahir Square, provided by Mohammed Bamyeh.
Through no small preoccupation with paradox (or what he terms aporia), Derrida identifies the realm of justice as a space in which compulsory or regulated actions have no place. As in the hospitality offered by cities of refuge, just acts must arise independently of the law’s compulsion, or they will not be truly just - merely regulated. The just act occurs as the un-called for thing to do, but also the apparent thing to do, the spontaneous gesture which reads as almost inevitable. For Derrida, this paradox - that just acts must not be compulsory, but must seem right - inevitably disappears as part of the process of enacting justice through laws. Yet the resulting laws - a system of deconstructible, calculated regulations for ensuring just treatment - require regular deconstruction in order to keep true justice present.

The picture that emerges here is of a society that moves constantly, dialectically, between an inadequate but necessary system of laws and the rediscovery of radical, antinomian ethics through deconstruction of those laws. Bamyeh hinted at such a path in his comparison of revolutionary and post-revolutionary spaces, and I suspect that the senses play a significant role in this process. They orient one, but not by the association of sensory harmony with a space of law, nor of sensory disruption with spaces of liberation. Instead, conditions of epistemological stability or instability perhaps signal a movement or need for movement between these two zones.

To borrow from (and perhaps misappropriate) Derrida, the appearance of an aporia perhaps signals not a potential for self-liberation, but an opportunity for generosity beyond the calculated confines of law. The experience of perceptual harmony, of the “rightness of things,” perhaps occurs on the path from a reconciled aporia to a space of regulation and protection - which will, if justice prevails, again undergo deconstruction and result in new aporias.

I would also add here, as one more complication, that the moments we’ve been discussing are largely occasions for collective sensory orientation or re-orientation, rather than individual epiphany. As we move to include ever more diverse sensoria, and ever more openness to the strange in our imaginations of newly just spaces, we will likely find opportunity to rewrite more than few understandings of sensation as a solitary act. The history of modern aesthetics as a history of individual perceptual epiphanies may open up all the richer when re-interpreted as a corporate body.


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Zsuzsa Gille said...

This is fascinating! As someone not formally trained in the arts, I always wondered about the effect of aesthetic harmony (visual or aural) on one's political consciousness or even just on what Jameson called cognitive cartography, one's ability to relate one's plight to larger structures. I think Connolly and Coles's piece we read this semester in the Unit seminars, and the whole focus on neuropolitics is approaching this very same question from the perspective of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Thought-provoking stuff!