Lebenskünstler

Social Practice – Social Poetry – Social Poiesis: aesthetic experimentalism and the creation of public life

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 05/06/2017

[mise en scène]
Multiple lines of inquiry – to enact a series of expansions from art to aesthetics and thus art education to aesthetic education. This would then entail using a synthesis of John Dewey’s theory of experience and experimentalism. The model of “experiment” would be the iterative approach of design rather than the narrower scientific model of experimentation. Ideas, actions, and other modes then become experiments in public culture. I re-frame social practice (with its narrow art focus) as social poiesis, and try to tackle the relationship between this aesthetic practice and the practice of democracy – again largely via Dewey, subsequent scholars, and especially Jane Addams. I would argue that Hull House was an exemplar of this aesthetic, experiential, experimental notion of social poiesis (Addams spoke of social ethics).

hemodynamics

[scene 1]
Granted, we are in the midst of an epistemic crisis, however, academics of a certain persuasion share a large measure of blame. The arts could have embraced the humanistic qualities for which they are so well suited, instead they sought respectability within the regime of criticality. Artists were to become political theorists and philosophers, usually quite shoddy ones. The sharp knife of reason and analysis gave modest protection to the fledgling artist, but the world grew darker and more dangerous. Everywhere critique multiplied, while empathy and visionary spirit weakened. “Without a cadre of people with these sort of imaginative and emotional capacities, there is no hope for democracy.”

[scene 2]
The proceduralism and planning of liberalism relied too heavily on institutions, rather than embodied habits of the heart. Liberals became enamored with rules, deliberation, and rights rather than virtues, associated living, and responsibilities. A polity of discourse among individuals, rather than of meaning within communities.

[scene 3 – courtesy of Mary Midgley]
We need the vast world, and it must be a world that does not need us; a world constantly capable of surprising us, a world we did not program, since only such a world is the proper object of wonder. Any kind of Humanism which deprives us of this, which insists on treating the universe as a mere projection screen for showing off human capacities, cripples and curtails humanity. “Humanists” often do this, because where there is wonder they think they smell religion, and they move hastily in to crush that unclean thing. ***But things much more unclean than traditional religion will follow the death of wonder.***

[scene 4]
Liberalism’s obsession with institutionalizing, economizing, and professionalizing every sphere of human endeavor leaves us out of love’s reach. We need human scale, affectionate practices that generate enchantment, and numinous experience.The liberal project is a dead end – Entzauberung.

Ronald Osborn (quoting Wendell Berry):
“Our politics and science have never mastered the fact that people need more than to **understand** their obligation to one another and the earth; they need also the **feeling** of such obligation, and the feeling can come only within the patterns of familiarity.”

The affection and skill necessary to prevent the depletion of top-soil, for example, only arises through intimate knowledge of and devotion to a concrete locality and its supporting natural and human relationships. There simply are no technical or global solutions to the crisis of soil loss brought on by extractive chemical and machine-based farming methods. What are needed are cultural solutions that take diverse local forms and emerge as a deeply rooted and affectionate responsiveness to place.

“When one works beyond the reach of one’s love for
the place one is working in and for the things and creatures one
is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results,”
Berry writes. “An adequate local culture, among other things,
keeps work within the reach of love.”

18301817_1908485872743364_3391351883054639106_n

[scene 5]
The wizards of explicit knowledge subvert the power of implicit experience. The artist as comedian then is forced to explain the joke, robbing it of all force. Art enters the pornographic regime of criticality, or performs the ventriloquism of critique in which art becomes the otherwise mute mannequin delivering the punchlines for its omnipotent master.

[interlude]

Social practice, to the extent it defines itself as another term for socially engaged art, repeats the mistakes of procedure and institution driven liberal democracy. Rather than approaching public life with an open question as to the best means for achieving one’s ends, social practice forecloses the choice to (an admittedly expansive definition of) art. Social practice, in the end, really means social practice art and with that casts its lot with a set of histories, institutions, and preconceived roles that limit its scope.  It mimics the idea of democracy as a political system with readily identifiable structures, instead of democracy as an experimental, experiential ethos.

A fundamental problem of democracy is the negotiation of associated living, of social life. This is an aesthetic problem, not a cognitive problem. Thus it would appear that art is of particular advantage in addressing this problem. However, art is but a small subset of aesthetic experience. Gregory Pappas says of democracy, “It would be more accurate to say that a democratic society is one that is composed of democratic associations than to say that a democratic association is one that exists because of a democratic society.” Similarly, it would be more accurate to say that art is predicated on aesthetic experience than to say aesthetic experience exists because of art.

The proposal then, is to shift to social poiesis as the mode of inquiry. I described it previously:


“social poiesis” (despite its even more obscure quality) might be a better term. If we don’t limit ourselves to art, social poiesis (née practice) could be more dynamic and encompass not only art actions and art environments, but also – urban planning, sports leagues, communes, be-ins, residencies, raves, state fairs, theme parks, cults, encounter groups, chautauquas, even nations…and would also apply to a much broader demographic of participants rather than artists and their audiences…

 

Michael Atkinson does not preface poiesis with social, however describes it as a “public method,” which I find resonant:

Poiesis is an artistic, aesthetic, emotional, and public method of revealing “different” human truths…humanistic, moral, ethical, spiritual…Poiesis arises from an act, a symbol, a thought, a feeling, or an expression that brings forth knowledge of the human condition falling outside of rationally technological ways of understanding human essences. Those interested in poiesis are less concerned then with measuring and accounting for something quantifiable in the world than the possibility of simultaneously experiencing the material and nonmaterial parameters of human existence.

As with Atkinson, this reading of poiesis from Robert D. Stolorow (via a review of a book by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly) gets at the spiritual aspect that seems important:

Dreyfus and Kelly examine and seek to resuscitate a kind of sacred practice, still marginally available to us, that the ancient Greeks called poiesis:

Until about a hundred years ago, the cultivating and nurturing practices of poiesis organized a central way things mattered. The poietic style manifested itself…in the craftsman’s skills for bringing things out at their best.…This cultivating, craftsman-like, poietic understanding of how to bring out meanings at their best was alive and well into the late nineteenth century, but it is under attack in our technological age. (Dreyfus and Kelly, 2011, p. 206)

Using woodworking as their principal example, Dreyfus and Kelly show that poietic understanding is both practical and embodied and that it enables us to see distinctions of meaning and value that those without such poietic understanding cannot see. Poietic practice makes it possible for us to apprehend entities and situations in their uniqueness and is thus a source of care, respect, and even reverence.

Finally there is the dimension of power in social poiesis. Anne Quéma goes into substantial detail in Power and Legitimacy: Law, Culture, and Literature, but her quick summary: “[social poiesis is]…a formidable process of creating meaning and regulating the practices and structures of social reality through symbolic and narrative means.”

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