thee myths ov MFA conspirators create occult circumstances in which art is cursed and infinitely esoteric

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/17/2016


fill in the blanks and move things around (part II) – a wildly partial map of social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/03/2016


a minimal equation: social poiesis + social praxis + social phronesis = social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/03/2016


This image is an expansive understanding of social practice, more expansive even than “social poiesis” which I have previously argued for:

“social poiesis” (despite its even more obscure quality) might be a better term. If we don’t limit ourselves to art, social poiesis (nee 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…

life is always lived in some present – social practice as artful living

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/02/2016



“The promise of Dewey’s aesthetics is not merely in providing an airtight definition of art or a theoretical reading of the relationship between art and moral value. Instead, Dewey theorizes to meliorate or improve lived experience. The insight of Dewey’s work on art is that what makes art aesthetic is not any particular property of that particular human practice, but rather its tendency to encourage the sort of absorptive, engaged attention to the rich present that is so often lost in today’s fragmented world. The way to substantially improve our experience is not by merely waiting for the material setup of the world to change, but instead lies in the intelligent altering of our deep-seated habits (orientations) toward activity and toward other individuals…Life is always lived in some present, and it is here that the battle of life is fought; one can come armed with habits that foster engagement with that present, or one can bring in ways of viewing the here and now (be it an art object or a work task) as a mere means to achieve something in the remote future. Both of these approaches will affect and tone the quality of lived, transactive experience. Dewey’s point…is that the former approach is constitutive of artful living.” – Scott Stroud

Dial “e” for social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/02/2016


the interplay of tr(ust) a(nd) p(ower) – a trap map for social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/02/2016


audacity and refinement in social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/02/2016

one way to set the table in honor of influences

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/01/2016


under the Bodhi Tree of social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/01/2016


if, and it is a BIG if, I said I was doing social practice (art), it would be up in here somewhere

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/31/2015


fill in the blanks and move things around – an axis of possibilities for social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/31/2015


a wholly incomplete fishbone through which art must pass on its way to becoming social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/31/2015


the conspiracy of force fields: a context for social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/31/2015


the magickal constitution of social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/31/2015


on the necessary and sufficient conditions for becoming a lebenskünstler

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/31/2015


somewhat conventional understanding of social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/31/2015


an adaptation (or what those theory folks call a détournement) of a food web map to illustrate recent and persistent bodymind activity

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/30/2015


Sacramentalism in the age of mercenary enchantment, or why there is no shame in my Romantic game – Imagination as the ecstasy of reason

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/08/2015

We Have Never Been Disenchanted – Eugene McCarraher

But is that the only way to understand the “different sense” to which Weber alluded so nebulously—that modernity marks the crossing of the Rubicon of disenchantment? Perhaps the sociologist who considered himself “religiously unmusical” heard faint notes of enchantment in modernity; perhaps, despite their wounds, the old divinities had not risen to give consent to their deaths. Were they really “disenchanted” when they assumed their “secular” form? Or do they still roam among us in the guise of “secularization”?

There are good reasons to think so, and some of them lie within one of the more tumultuous and aggressive of the allegedly “disenchanting” forces of modernity: capitalism, whose “laws of the market” Weber had identified as one refuge for the phantoms of divinity. Of course, capitalism has long been presumed to be a powerful solvent of enchantment. “All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned,” as Marx and Engels proclaimed in The Communist Manifesto. Far from being bastions of piety, the bourgeois masters of capitalism have “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor … in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” What if those waters of pecuniary reason constituted a baptismal font, a consecration of capitalism as a covert form of enchantment, all the more beguiling on account of its apparent profanity?

…capitalism has been a form of enchantment, a metamorphosis of the sacred in the raiment of secularity. With money as its ontological marrow, it represents a moral and metaphysical imagination as well as a sublimation of our desire for the presence of divinity in the everyday world. Second, the most incisive forms of opposition to capitalist enchantment have come in the form of what I will call “the sacramental imagination,” a conviction that the material of ordinary life can mediate the supernatural.

In this view, capitalism perverts both the sacramental character of the world and our consciousness of that quality—neither of which can ever be extinguished, only assaulted, damaged, and left in ruins. As Gerard Manley Hopkins summarized it so well in the Romantic idiom of the sacramental imagination, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God…. There lies the dearest freshness deep down things”—a freshness spoiled, he ruefully added, “seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil.” The world does not need to be re-enchanted; its enduring and ineradicable enchantment requires our belated recognition and reverence.

But as the metaphysical regime of capitalism, monetary and commodity fetishism was at least as beguiling as any previous order of enchantment, especially as all its rivals were evaporating. If the proletariat is thoroughly permeated by pecuniary enchantment, why would the oppressed ever desire the transcendence of alienation and servility? With sufficient technical and political ingenuity—mass production, consumer culture, the welfare and regulatory policies of modern liberalism and social democracy—the sacramental tokens of commodity fetishism could retard and even extinguish the growth of revolutionary consciousness.

Weil traced the failure of the Marxist revolutionary imagination to its species of materialism. Like other nineteenth-century materialists, Marx conceived of matter as an inert and lifeless ensemble of forces; however “historical” his materialism claimed to be, the inertia of matter entailed subjection to the inviolable laws of the natural—and only—world. But if matter—including historical matter—is governed only by force, then the mechanisms of capitalist matter were, on Marx’s own terms, invincible. “Marx’s revolutionary materialism,” Weil observed, “consists in positing on the one hand that everything is exclusively regulated by force, and on the other that a day will come when force will be on the side of the weak. Not that certain ones who were weak will become strong … but that the entire mass of the weak, while continuing to be such, will have force on its side.” While Weil praised Marx for his acute portrayal of the apparatus of capitalist domination, she realized that the political implications of inanimate materialism were anything but emancipatory.

Rather than reactively dismiss materialism altogether in favor of some “spiritual” ontology of politics, Weil hinted at a sacramental alternative. Shortly before her untimely death in 1943, Weil—by then what could be described as a fellow-traveler of Christianity, someone lingering in the vestibule but never entering the sanctuary—speculated that just as “yeast only makes the dough rise if it is mixed with it,” so in the same way “there exist certain material conditions for the supernatural operation of the divine that is present on earth.” The knowledge of those “material conditions” for “supernatural operation” would, Weil surmised, constitute “the true knowledge of social mechanics.” If matter is not exactly “animate,” the material world of society and history could be a conduit for divinity. Because we have “forgotten the existence of a divine order of the universe,” we fail to see that “labor, art, and science are only different ways of entering into contact with it.”

This sacramental critique of Marxist metaphysics would not be that it is “too materialist” but rather that it is not materialist enough—that is, that it does not provide an adequate account of matter itself, of its sacramental and revelatory character. Sacramentality has ontological and social implications, for the “gift” that Williams identifies is “God’s grace and the common life thus formed.”

As the doyen of scholars of Romanticism, M. H. Abrams, explained, secularization has not been “the deletion and replacement of religious ideas” but rather their “assimilation and reinterpretation.” Romantics, in his view, provided an aesthetic asylum for the spirits of pre-modern enchantment. Like Thomas Carlyle’s Professor Teufelsdröckh, the philosopher-prophet of Sartor Resartus (1831), they longed to “embody the divine Spirit” of the gospel “in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls … may live.” But Romanticism did more than preserve an interior enclave for the supernatural; as Bernard Reardon perceived, it also named “the inexpungeable feeling that the finite is not self-explaining and self-justifying” and that “there is always an infinite ‘beyond’”—a beyond that lived in the midst of us, leaving numinous traces in the world of appearance. In other words, Romanticism is the modern heir to the Christian sacramental imagination.

Although divorced from orthodox theology, Romantic humanism echoed the traditional harmony of reason, love, and reality. When Romantics praised “enthusiasm,” “reverence,” and “imagination,” they restated the venerable Christian wisdom that reason is rooted in love, that full and genuine understanding precludes a desire to possess and control. Against the imperious claims of “Urizen”—Blake’s fallen “Prince of Light” and your reason reduced to measurement and calculation—Blake countered that “Enthusiastic Admiration is the First Principle of Knowledge & its last.” “To know a thing, what we can call knowing,” Carlyle surmised in Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840), we “must first love the thing, sympathise with it.” Arising from a sacramental sense of the world as a “region of the Wonderful,” Carlyle’s incessant admonitions to “reverence” and “wonder” were, at bottom, exhortations to love.

“Imagination” was the name Romantics gave to this erotic and sacramental consciousness. Yet imagination was not only a subjective enchantment; in the Romantic sensibility, imagination was the most perspicuous form of vision—the ability to see what is really there, behind the illusion or obscurity produced by our will to dissect and dominate. To Samuel Taylor Coleridge, if reason is “the power of universal and necessary convictions, the source and substance of truths above sense,” then imagination is its vibrant sacramental partner, “the living Power and prime Agent of all human perception … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” For Romantics, imagination did not annul but rather completed rationality. During the French Revolution, Wordsworth observed, reason seemed “most intent on making of herself / A prime Enchantress.” Though warning of the brutality of instrumental reason—“our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things; / We murder to dissect”—Wordsworth described imagination as “Reason in her most exalted mood.” Imagination was, for the Romantics, the ecstasy of reason.

…Theodore Roszak praised the Romantics for their “sacramental consciousness,” which he hoped to enlist against a technocratic capitalism that now enjoyed a perverse “monopoly of the sacramental powers.” Consigning Marxism and other secular revolutionary theories to the dustbin of disenchantment, Roszak called on a new generation of radicals who knew that “politics is metaphysically grounded” to draw upon “primordial energies greater than the power of our bombs.”

As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton realized, those “primordial energies” could be as gentle as the rain. In “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” a haunting essay in Raids on the Unspeakable (1966), Merton imagined the sad perversity of a world reduced to inventory. As he listened to showers in the forest near Gethsemani, the Kentucky abbey where he lived, Merton hastened to convey the beauty of the rain before it “becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money”—they meaning business, determined to take everything free and incalculable and make it a paying proposition.

To Merton, this insatiable avarice indicated an evil much deeper than moral perversion; it emanated from a capitalist enchantment that only masqueraded as secularity. Business was launching an ontological regime in which “what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real”; in the cosmology of capital, “the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market.” Graphing the rain on the commercial axis of effective demand and scarcity of supply, the alchemists of commerce cannot “appreciate its gratuity.” Yet for those who saw the world as the lavish largesse of a loving and prodigal God, “rain is a festival,” a celebration of its own gifted and gloriously pointless existence. “Every plant that stands in the light of the sun is a saint and an outlaw,” he exulted. “Every blade of grass is an angel in a shower of glory.”

Who are the acolytes of Romantic sacramentalism in our own age of mercenary enchantment, when the specter of ecological catastrophe forms a global storm-cloud of the twenty-first century? Pope Francis I, for one, who in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’ (2015), provides an erudite and often moving manifesto of the sacramental imagination. Opening with his namesake’s “Canticle to the Creatures,” the Pope proceeds to excoriate the economic system for pillaging the earth and its inhabitants; the biosphere “groans in travail,” as he cites Paul’s warning to the Romans.

But as Francis insists in his own epistle to the disenchanted, the root of the violence wrought upon the planet lies in an ontological blindness. Divine love is “the fundamental moving force in all created things,” Francis writes; the world is “illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion.” No doubt this will all seem foolish to the shamans and magicians of neoliberal capitalism, whose own imaginations are lavishly imprisoned in the gaudy cage of disenchantment. The Romantics would remind us that our capacity to act well relies on our capacity to see what is really there. For there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley.

My snark is a political act – Wishing intellectuals would talk more and write less – why I never read papers at conferences – Academic culture is dominated by “a flash in human history”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/01/2015

Why Twitter’s Oral Culture Irritates Bill Keller (and why this is an important issue) – Zeynep Tufekci

First Keller talks about how we no longer need to remember everything and how his father used to use a slide rule and now there are calculators and who knows their multiplication table anymore… This is a familiar argument from cognitive replacement and I believe it is worth discussing not necessarily because there is something inherently wrong with machines making certain cognitive tasks easier, but I do deeply worry about what this means for valuing humans. Cheaper computers increasingly capable of taking over human tasks means that we face a profound human problem: how will we deal with the billions of people who will be potentially redundant if the only way of measuring a human’s worth is their price on the labor market? For me, this is an important political question rather than a technological lament. It’s not about what machines can do, it’s about the criteria by which we judge the worth of our fellow human beings, and how advances information technology increasingly leads us to devalue each other.

But this comparison between Gutenberg and Zuckerberg makes little sense unless you realize that Keller is actually trying to complain about the reemergence of oral psychodynamics in the public sphere rather than about memory falling out of favor. If the latter were the case, his ire would be more about Google; instead, most of his frustration is directed against social media, and mostly Twitter, the most conversational, and thus most oral of these mediums.

The key to understanding this is that while writing did displace the value of memory, the vast abundance of printed material it did something else also, something less remarked upon, both to the shape of our public sphere and also to our psychodynamics. It replaced the natural, visceral human oral psychodynamics with those of literate and written ones. Most of us are so awash in this new form that we notice it as much as fish notice water; however, writing is but a blip and the printed from a flash in human history. Orality, on the other hand, is perhaps the most human of our characteristics, and ironically, the comeback of which into the public sphere is the one Keller is lamenting while worrying about losing our human characteristics. What he seems to actually mean is that, with the advent of writing and printing, we *acquired* these new cognitive tools and novel psychodynamic [and I should note that they never took that much root in most recesses of culture and thus remain fragile] and they are threatened by social media which re-introduces older forms which, of course, never died out but receded from public importance.

The oral world is ephemeral, exists only suspended in time, supported primarily through interpersonal connections, survives only on memory, and rather than building final, cumulative works, it is aimed at conversation and remembering knowledge by rendering it memorable, which can often mean snarky, witty, rhythmic and rhyming. (Think poet slams rather than essays).

What we are seeing with social media is the public sphere, hitherto dominated by written culture, has been more opened up to oral psychodynamics. And this is particularly difficult to deal with for intellectuals who rely on their competence with, and dominance of, the written form as hallmark of their place in society. (As I will argue, there are reasons to be concerned but it is important to separate these issues). Also, television, too, is secondary literacy in that television acts in a way which assumes and implies writing. (I am not going to go into this at length here but there is a lot of work on this topic, starting with Ong).

However, Twitter and other such tools also present a great opportunity to bring into the public sphere, and into important conversations, greater number of people who would otherwise be excluded. Rather than seeing this as a turf war in which the literate classes must defend their turf against the barbarians at the gate, the questions should be how we can preserve the better aspects of the ideal of the reasoned, complex and rational public sphere without descending into elitism. (I say the ideal because, as Dave Parry often points out, usually on Twitter, the Habermassian ideal of the public sphere, well, never really was).

Cultural “production” is a failed model redux – On caring, invisible efforts and the debasement of calling oneself a maker

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/23/2015

“Why I Am Not a Maker” – Debbie Chachra

Every once in a while, I am asked what I “make.” A hack day might require it, or a conference might ask me to describe “what I make” so it can go on my name tag.

I’m always uncomfortable with it. I’m uncomfortable with any culture that encourages you take on an entire identity, rather than to express a facet of your own identity (“maker,” rather than “someone who makes things”). But I have much deeper concerns.

Walk through a museum. Look around a city. Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by or at the order of men. But behind every one is an invisible infrastructure of labor—primarily caregiving, in its various aspects—that is mostly performed by women. As a teenager, I read Ayn Rand on how any work that needed to be done day after day was meaningless, and that only creating new things was a worthwhile endeavor. My response to this was to stop making my bed every day, to the distress of my mother. (While I admit the possibility of a misinterpretation, as I haven’t read Rand’s writing since I was so young that my mother oversaw my housekeeping, I have no plans to revisit it anytime soon.) The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.

Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system. While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling a different set of things), it mostly re-inscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.

It’s not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with making (although it’s not all that clear that the world needs more stuff). The problem is the idea that the alternative to making is usually not doing nothing—it’s almost always doing things for and with other people, from the barista to the Facebook community moderator to the social worker to the surgeon. Describing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.

I am not a maker. In a framing and value system that is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is superficially the same, year on year. That’s because all of the actual change, the actual effects, are at the interface between me as an educator, my students, and the learning experiences I design for them. People have happily informed me that I am a maker because I use phrases like “design learning experiences,” which is mistaking what I do (teaching) for what I’m actually trying to help elicit (learning). To characterize what I do as “making” is to mistake the methods—courses, workshops, editorials—for the effects. Or, worse, if you say that I “make” other people, you are diminishing their agency and role in sense-making, as if their learning is something I do to them.

In a recent newsletter, Dan Hon, content director for Code for America wrote, “But even when there’s this shift to Makers (and with all due deference to Getting Excited and Making Things), even when ‘making things’ includes intangibles now like shipped-code, there’s still this stigma that feels like it attaches to those-who-don’t-make. Well, bullshit. I make stuff.” I understand this response, but I’m not going to ask people—including myself—to deform what they do so they can call themselves a “maker.” Instead, I call bullshit on the stigma and the culture and values behind it that rewards making above everything else.

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The unfunny joke and the unartist: the metaphysics of absence? A comedian and an artist walk into a bar…

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/20/2015

Excerpts from Welcome to the Age of the Unfunny Joke by Lee Siegel (marked “LS”) juxtaposed with quotes from Stephen Wright (SW) and Allan Kaprow (AK).

LS: “In the unfunny joke, the comedian’s format is the Trojan horse that makes its way into your secret store of feelings as you wait genially to be entertained. The surprise is the unfunny truth that cuts through your consciousness with the force of a sword.”

SW: “…though informed by art-related skills, their work suffers from — or, should we say, enjoys — impaired visibility as art. Yet this impaired visibility may well be inversely proportional to the work’s political efficacy: since it is not partitioned off as ‘art,’ that is, as ‘just art,’ it remains free to deploy all its symbolic force in lending enhanced visibility and legibility to social processes of all kinds.”

LS: “Comedy is becoming an occasion to abandon humor for the exposure of unsoftened truth. Of course, comedians have always had license to be blunt so long as they cushioned their provocations with humor. In the case of the unfunny joke, however, the humor is absent.”

AK: “…the idea of art cannot easily be gotten rid of (even if one wisely never utter the word). But it is possible to slyly shift the whole un-artistic operation away from where the arts customarily congregate, to become, for instance, an account executive, an ecologist, a stunt rider, a politician, a beach bum. In these different capacities…[art] would operate indirectly as a stored code that, instead of programming a specific course of behavior, would facilitate an attitude of deliberate playfulness toward all professionalizing activities well beyond art. Signal scrambling, perhaps. Something like those venerable baseball aficionados in the vaudeville act that began, “Who’s on first?”

LS: “These people are professional comedians and most of their acts are spent making people laugh. But there is a schizoid dimension to comedy now. As fiction merges into autobiography, and movies based on actual events proliferate, the compulsion for comedians to smash through the artifice of comedy and tell the unadorned truth without humor is becoming stronger and stronger.”

Where is the magic? Art as a social practice and the intellectual cult of the MFA.

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/02/2015

James Tufts, in 1903, already knew that all art is (a) social practice:

Art has its origins, almost without exception, in social relations; it has developed under social pressure; it has been fostered by social occasions; it has in turn served social ends in the struggle for existence. In consequence, the values attributed to aesthetic objects have social standards, and the aesthetic attitude will be determined largely by these social antecedents. Or, in other words, the explanation of aesthetic categories is to be sought largely in social psychology.


…art has its origin, not in any single impulse, much less in any desire to gratify an already existing aesthetic demand for beauty, but rather in response to many and varied demands, economic, protective, sexual, military, magical, ceremonial, religious, and intellectual.

Of course, an explanation of social psychology requires an engagement with many other fields, especially natural history. And the diverse art impulses Tufts identifies are expelled from the homogenized intellectualist academy.

I am for an art that needs no manifesto

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/22/2015

I am for an art that tackles the problem of writing.
I am for an art that wages war on words.
I am for an art that stands mute.
I am for art on panels, and not panels on art.
I am for an art that pleads for linguistic absolution.
I am for an art that talks, laughs, or stutters, but spits on the page.
I am for art as the statement, not the artist’s statement.
I am for an art without crutches, without critics.
I am for an art that is nothing but words, yet not “writing.”
I am for an art, any art that puts needles in the eyes of professionals.

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against art historical noodling or why social poiesis is more interesting than social practice especially if by social practice we really mean social practice art – Even more stuff I said in blog comments with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/02/2015

I often quote IC-98 on this matter:

“…as a reaction to the restrictions of academic writing…In practice, the world of contemporary art has proved to be the most flexible environment for diverse projects, being a free zone of experimentation within the society at large…[it] offers possibilities to put forward ideas without the preconditions of academic work …the market…or activism…the projects are labeled art only for strategic reasons – the strategy works as long as the concepts of art do not come to dominate the discourse. The same applies to the individuals working in the group: you call yourself artist, just because it is institutionally convenient, [emphasis mine] because the very concept of ARTIST is obscure.”

These “strategic reasons” are part of what ***’s investigation of “practical consequences” would help illuminate. I am extremely sympathetic to this pragmatic (rather than ontological) engagement with categories. But I remain interested in social practice to the degree that it remains social practice, rather than social practice *art*. So when we inquire into the aesthetics of participation for instance we don’t get bogged down in all the art historical noodling that paralyzes so many critics from the old school. It is important to emphasize that all kinds of “problems” are solved by recognizing that art [frieze/e-flux/triple canopy type art], is just a highly specialized and mostly pointless parlor game played with, and within, aesthetic experience. If we remain attuned to aesthetics and aesthetic experience (especially from an embodied, phenomenological point of view) or to “the arts” or “the art of” or “the artful” rather than to Art, we increase the chances of having the “dynamic, complex and difficult dialogues” *** seeks rather than the insular professional tiffs of the Art world. Melvin Haggerty (1935) said it much better:

“Art is a way of life” is a simple statement of short and familiar words. It expresses a way of looking at life that is very old in the history of thought. If it now seems strange it is because we have permitted art to become divorced from the ordinary activities in which men [sic] engage and its cultivation to drift into the hand of specialists from whom the mass of mankind is separated as by a chasm. In recent times this chasm has become very broad and very deep. To men [sic] absorbed in the work of the world artists appear to be a cult and their work and conversation seem esoteric and almost mystical. To artists ordinary folks appear ignorant and unappreciative, and very often their thinly veiled contempt for plebeian tastes has led them to caustic expression. This dissociation is artificial; it is injurious to art and impoverishes life.

[art as a way of life] sees that as the experiences of life multiply, new and varied purposes arise that call for the invention of new objects and new forms of expression and that these, in turn, vastly increase the possibilities of enriching life…This elemental reality that binds into a single pattern all the varied arts is more important for the philosophy of education than is the stress so often laid upon the differences that superficially separate one kind of creative work from other kinds.

We have assumed a way of looking at art that permits no gulf between the simple arts of life and the so-called fine arts. It sees all as man’s [sic] more or less successful efforts to create things that increase the comforts, the efficiencies, and the pleasures of living…This view cherishes not even the ethically tinged distinction between good art and bad art.

The distinction between creation and appreciation is not one between activity and passivity but rather one among different kinds of activity. The realization of this fact should emphasize the essential unity of art experiences.

*** – Long time no talk. I have to call you out though about what a mess you’re making! You keep conflating art and aesthetics. To call something “not art” in no way reduces its aesthetic dimension. And your understanding of what treating something aesthetically does – “increases distance” – is but one (dominant) idea of aesthetic experience. Berleant’s “Art And Engagement” makes all this talk of participatory aesthetics a moot point (not to mention Dewey and the pragmatists among others). All aesthetic experience is participatory, engaged.

*** – although I quoted IC-98 for one reason (the tactical employment of art as a descriptor), I actually agree more with David Robbins in this quote:

“All the time, though, my sensibility pointed toward and yearned for an imaginative Elsewhere. I became increasingly dissatisfied with the narrowness of art as a formulation of the imagination. This will sound preposterous to many people, I’m aware, given that art offers and represents extraordinary behavioral freedoms, but in “making art” I found an ultimately enslaving formulation. How so? In art, you can do, yes, anything you want so long as you’re willing to have it end up as art. That isn’t real imaginative freedom, in my view. Inquisitiveness of mind will carry you past art, and apparently I love inquisitiveness of mind more than I love art.”

So again I hope social practice delivers us to this imaginative Elsewhere, but art has an insidious ability to capture its escapees…

*** – since I’m in such a quotey mood, I think these snippets from Carl Wilson might get at some of the spirit of criticism I am after (but I am totally down with your criticism as aesthetic experience bit). It’s just that I’m not as fired up about judgment and evaluation as you seem to be:

“What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great…It might…offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir.”

“…a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all the messiness and private soul tremors – to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare.”

Re: Meta-experience – I find the discussion around this a bit condescending…it implies that people outside art somehow live their lives unconsciously, that they are unable to think about how to sharpen experience or how to craft an endeavor.

Re: Critique – I recently chaired a panel called “Critiquing Criticality” (which will hopefully end up as a book) and we discussed at length how art had sold its soul to be taken seriously in the academy. That is, it was so ashamed of all those “fuzzy” romantic qualities that it ended up jettisoning all the things that distinguished it from “real” academic disciplines. I would argue much to its detriment.

*** –  I would ask you carry your pragmatic reasoning further. Let us accept that it is indeed now “meaningful” for Rirkrit to call pad thai his art. What does that designation actually *do?* The consensus so far in these threads is that it might invite a kind of meta-reflection which I addressed above to some degree. But to put it even more bluntly, let’s stipulate that this is art’s province alone, what social value is there in that? Aside from appealing to the sorts of people who enjoy thinking about thinking about thinking? Wouldn’t this territory staked out by art be rather sad? When eating pad thai, asking whether it is art or not or whether it follows from Fluxus more than it follows from conceptualism seems like a hollow inquiry. Does it taste good? Does it taste like my mom’s version? Does it remind me of the time I visited that city? Was this dish my friend’s favorite? Those questions tie the food to life, to concrete experience, to ordinary people and therefore are more pragmatically vibrant. And, all of those questions need art as much as pad thai needs alfredo sauce!

For me, calling pad thai art accomplishes exactly nothing other than connect it to a pedantic, insular conversation (art history/criticism). The question of calling social practice projects art amounts to a pragmatic (of the simple, not philosophic type) question (I asked elsewhere) – Do I show them in an art context, however imperfectly it addresses my concerns and burdens me with a history I’m not particularly interested in? Or do I explore them elsewhere and suffer from the lack of critical, promotional, and organizational infrastructure that the art context provides?

*** – “Does an artist need to call what they do social practice? do they need to call themselves artists?”

To these questions I have posited time and again that social practice is *already* happening all the time, with or without art and artists. I think that art has some very modest things to offer, but I prefer a more bottom up, less homogenous, and certainly more diverse approach to understanding, and engaging social practice. Urban ecology seems like an ideal strand to add to the web, so to speak. Here is my initial stab at articulating a vision for social practice (preceded by a contextualizing rant) that may be of interest to you:https://randallszott.org/2013/01/18/all-we-have-to-do-is-look-around-toward-a-local-social-practice-syllabus-or-an-idiosyncratic-arty-party-field-guide-to-vermont/
*** –

Maybe I could grab your attention for a moment and ask what you think of Larry Shiner’s “The Invention of Art” or Mary Anne Staniszewski’s “Believing Is Seeing” as two examples of the argument that it doesn’t make sense to talk about Greek or Roman “art” or at the minimum, capital A “Art.” You seem to be somewhat sympathetic in your commentary above. And do we sidestep this (in a productive way) by continuing the discussion in terms of aesthetic activity rather than art? And by aesthetics, I do not mean exclusively the philosophic subdiscipline itself…

*** – I like that you bring up phronesis, but it’s funny because I am an advocate of not limiting social practice to the visual and performing arts (and there is discussion of it in a very different way in other fields) and was going to suggest here before your post that “social poiesis” (despite its even more obscure quality) might be a better term. If we don’t limit ourselves to art, social poiesis (nee 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…

But ***, much like the recent article in the Onion (http://www.theonion.com/articles/artists-announce-theyve-found-all-the-beauty-they,20973/) the *last* thing I want to do is to provide a framework for expanding what artists consider their “media.” Rather I am hoping to show that what artists and their supporters wish to claim as an exclusive territory, or what they reserve some claim of special ability at, is already done, by all sorts of folks from all walks of life. And, yes I believe that Dewey (and many contemporary scholars developing his work – but NOT Rorty) can be read (in fact *should* be read) as seeing aesthetics as an integral feature of everyday life – “through and through” as you say.

Gregory Pappas (Dewey scholar):

“The intelligent and aesthetic characters of democracies are mutually dependent. The community most capable of learning from experience is also the one that has all the features that define aesthetic activity, which for Dewey is the most inherently meaningful type of activity in experience. The democratic way of life is able to maintain the kind of balance and rhythm in its everyday doings and undergoings that, for Dewey, characterize aesthetic experience: a balance of tensions with rhythmic variety. Ideal activity is a merging of playfulness with seriousness that allows richness and flexibility without sacrificing stability. Democracy signifies for Dewey this possibility at the social level. The democratic community is also the aesthetic community because it is constituted by relationships that are neither fixed, routine, or mechanical, nor anarchical, capricious, or arbitrary.”


“Dewey’s work…affirms the potential of ordinary experience (concrete life) to be the source of amelioration, admiration, and inspiration. His metaphysics reminds philosophers that the tangled, complex, gross, macroscopic, and crude things we find in everyday life are real, for example, vagueness, ugliness, fantasies, headaches, illusions, spark plugs, a conversation with a friend, parties, diseases, stones, food, tragedy, a conflict with a roommate, a joke, playing backgammon with friends, measles, and marbles. His aesthetics is a philosophical reintegration of the aesthetic with everyday life that is, in effect, a celebration of lived experience…his ethics is an affirmation of morality as experience.”


“When the thought of the end becomes so adequate that it compels translation into the means that embody it, or when attention to the means is inspired by recognition of the end they serve, we have the attitude typical of the artist, an attitude that may be displayed in all activities, even though they are not conventionally designated ‘arts.’ “

Sorry I’m back to being quotey, but this nugget from Dewey in 1891!!! cuts to the heart of the matter:

“If the necessary part played in conduct by artistic cultivation is not so plain, it is largely because ‘Art’ has been made such an unreal Fetich [sic] – a sort of superfine and extraneous polish to be acquired only by specially cultivated people. In reality, living is itself the supreme art…”

Living is itself the supreme art – social poiesis?

re: politics and aesthetics – I included a quote (from Gregory Pappas) on the other thread that addresses this exact point. The more expansive notion of aesthetics that I think we share (and Dewey et. al. have developed extensively) is inextricably linked with politics. In fact, that is why I am mystified by Claire Bishop getting as much attention as she does as her theoretical house of cards is so flimsy – relying as it does on such a misguided interpretation of the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.

re: pleasure – Richard Shusterman is my go to here (although I go to him for many other insights as well!) There is a link to his piece before the quotes I’ve culled: https://randallszott.org/2012/12/30/adorno-the-grumpy-puritan-richard-shusterman-on-art-and-pleasure/
“With these authors you get all modes of social practice: antagonism, pedagogy, community, the dialogic, ethics, morality, the relational, and the political.”

This statement is barely true even with this correction:

“With these authors you get all modes of social practice [art]: antagonism, pedagogy, community, the dialogic, ethics, morality, the relational, and the political.”

If social practice aspires to be anything more than another entry in the art historical ledger rather than say the historical ledger, *** reading list is the *last* place to look. Sadly it is all too reflective of the inbred nature of art discourse (embodying Kaprow’s “artlike art”). I think *** is dead on, but I would add another cautionary note (as I linked to in another comment) – developing a reading list should be an extremely low priority. A looking/experiencing list might be better. My mom ain’t gonna read Claire Bishop and she sure as hell isn’t gonna read Ranciere. But my mom engages in social practice (but has no need to call it that or study it as such) via her gardening club, and her volunteer activities. I love Fritz Haeg, but Crockett’s Victory Garden is more her speed and I would hope we’re not trying to build a field reserved for grad school types or urban hipsters (of which I am or was).

*** – I misunderstood you. I took you too literally when you said “all modes of social practice.” Believe me, I’m all about cutting slack (just ask google).

*** – where is the damn “like” button on this page? Your response itself was “smartly dark!” There is no denying of course (in fact my wife made the same comment) that reading is an experience. So yes, I should have said something more like “a (nonreading) looking/experiencing list.” It is also true that for many people (particularly of an academic persuasion – and I know, not exclusively) reading and looking are deeply symbiotic, but for many other folks they are not, or are dependent on entirely different sets of “texts.” I do disagree that I am over estimating/underestimating anyone – I was not clear in communicating this though. Because it is very much the latter of your propositions that I support. I do not oppose Crockett to Haeg (as I said I love Haeg!!!), but was pointing out that there are people doing social practice beyond art world/academe/activist circles. And trying to suggest that I think developing a robust idea of social practice needs to be inclusive of those folks. So when you ask “is anyone actually saying that?” I think you mean is anyone privileging the art/activist crowd over the PBS gardening crowd…to which I answer emphatically yes! I’ve been to panel after panel, read book after book, essay after essay, seen show after show, attended conference after conference, read syllabus after syllabus, and there is a clear canon established that charts an all too familiar course. Very rarely is anyone included that isn’t part of the dominant or emerging activist/artist circuit and even then they are usually included as material for, or in “collaboration” with an artist/activist. How do we get out of this? I’m not exactly sure – maybe get more ethnographic (with all its ensuing baggage)? I think *** is suggesting something similar (but in a much less grating tone than mine). As far as understanding/thinking about/experiencing social practice I’ve said before “all we have to do is look around.”

suffocated by art – Nik Kosmas on escaping the art world

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/17/2015

Q/A NIK KOSMAS – Why did you decide to end your career as a young and successful visual artist?

At some point, I had the feeling that I couldn’t explain what I was doing, with conviction, to a stranger. The subjective nature of making “work” in a field where basically anything goes: critical or non-critical, aesthetic or conceptual, material or dematerialized – as long as you want to call it “art”. I felt suffocated by potentials and missed having a method for evaluating options. Possibly I was also suffering from some kind of imposter complex, where I felt like anyone at any time would notice that everything we were doing made no sense. These deep-seated anxieties probably reflect the fact that art is no longer very relevant.

I just didn’t think there was a point or a respectable future in endlessly critiquing or arrogantly joking about innovations coming from other fields.

To continue making art after you reach a certain level of success, you have to have a mixture of talent, ego, and pragmatism. You have to suspend the disbelief and doubt about your self-centered and marginal mini-territory of custom-made industrial process hacks, and “themes”, all the time struggling to stay relevant and inspired while the upper-class gallerists and collectors – who are your only real support system – make the magic happen…You can survive if you stay inside the art bubble: writing grants, teaching, getting the odd public commission (especially if you come from one of those small, rich, socialist European countries that pay artists ridiculous amounts of money to do things that are questionably useful :)). I wanted to engage in the “real” world, where things are much more competitive, and also, yes, dumbed down for a more general audience (and for that same reason so much more effective and important).

… it was supposed to go around creating value through abstract financial art-world machinations. Anyways, I became totally disillusioned that this was interesting at all. It felt very easy and parasitic and had unclear metrics for success. Martin’s project was random but had clear metrics for success: units sold, growth rate, five-star reviews. Martin was “doing” what we were joking or commenting on.

My long-term goal is to supply concrete niches with products that “affect” a huge amount of people (this is about the body): from tea to shoes to food, eventually to architecture and beyond. I am training and studying all the time, trying to remain passionate and excited about what I do.

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This *actual* world – an antidote for academic philosophy (Chapter 3 – Chapter 5)

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/26/2015

Philosophy & This Actual World – Martin Benjamin

“Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts – Charles S. Peirce

In an illuminating metaphor, social scientist Otto Neurath compares humans as knowers to “sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials.” We acquire our capacity for critical reflection against the backdrop of a complex network of beliefs and claims to knowledge. Some elements of the network were acquired from our families, others from church, neighborhood, school, books, televisions, and so on; still others have their origins in personal experience. This network of knowledge and belief is our ship, the vessel on which we navigate the occasionally hazardous, ever-changing, only partially charted sea of life. The “ship of knowledge” is not, however, as seaworthy as we would like it to be…It needs repair and rebuilding, but we can’t do it all at once and from the bottom up. We are, after all, on the open sea…As the mariner must use and stand on some parts of the ship while examining, repairing, and improving others, we must rely on some (fallible) parts of our network of knowledge and belief while doubting, testing, and revising other parts

…As Wittgenstein also puts it, “the same proposition may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing.”

…the locus of certainty is the *actions* of embodied social agents, *not the intellect* of a (possibly) lone, disembodied spectator. Certainty turns out to be practical or pragmatic rather than propositional or intellectual…

…you know from experience there’s a big difference between the world and your ideas of it. To anyone but a certain kind of academic philosopher, it goes without saying.

…What should be puzzling here [in radical epistemological skepticism] is not the lack of proof, but the *request* for one…

…We employ a wide variety of different language games or vocabularies in making our way in the world and there is…nothing to be gained and much to be lost by choosing *once and for all* between them.

…”[quoting Richard Gregory] The question need not be whether reality is material or spiritual; it can be, what follows from talking about reality one way or the other? What do we gain, and what price do we pay, for adopting one vocabulary and giving up the other?

…We keep away from fire, raise the thermostat on the furnace, lower the volume on the stereo, comfort a frightened child, commiserate with the bereaved, condemn torture, and so on. As *pragmatic* certainties, these anticipations of and responses to subjective experience are not part of a fallible theory or system of knowledge. Our certainty that we and others experience pain is not propositional – not the outcome of a conclusive chain of reasoning…that we and others can experience pain *goes without saying.* We cannot really doubt whether we and practically all other human beings are capable of certain mental states because these and related states are among the *hinges* on which language – and hence doubt and inquiry – turn.

…We should drink deeply of science, but not to the point of intoxication…*Leading* a life requires the personal perspective of an agent – tempered and informed, to be sure, by the scientific or impersonal standpoint – but not fully replaced by it…If, however, you think of yourself as *one of us* – an embodied social agent *in* the world as well as a spectator *of* it – you will see the implausibility of such replacement.

If there were a contest for the best one-sentence definition of philosophy, it would be hard to beat Wilfrid Sellars’s characterization of philosophy as an attempt to “understand how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term.”

…If forced to choose between a practically incapacitating, but simple and intellectually satisfying extreme, on the one hand, and a practically empowering, but complex and intellectually disconcerting accommodation, on the other, the pragmatic temperament favors the latter.

Søren Kierkegaard, in a passage paraphrased by [William] James, writes, “It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it mus be lived forwards.”

Instead of a single, abstract, theoretical free will problem to be solved in one fell swoop, we are faced with a large number of free will problems – problems requiring complex, context-dependent, ambivalent choice between the vocabularies of freedom and determinism.

[quoting Mary Midgley] Getting right outside morality would be rather like getting outside the atmosphere. It would mean losing the basic social network within which we live and communicate with others, including all those others in the past who have formed our culture. If we can imagine this deprived state at all, it would be a solitary condition close to that of autism or extreme depression – a state where, although intelligence can still function, there is no sense of community with others, no shared wishes, principles, aspirations or ideals, no mutual trust or fellowship with those outside, no preferred set of concepts, nothing agreed on as important.

[quoting Kai Nielsen] Instead we weave and unweave the fabric of our beliefs until we get, for a time, though only for a time, the most consistent and coherent package which best squares with everything we reasonably believe we know and to which we, on reflection, are most firmly committed. There are some extensively fixed points, points which we *may* always in fact obtain anywhere, anywhen, but they are still, logically speaking, provisional fixed points which are not, in theory at least, beyond question, if they turn out not to fit with the web of our beliefs and reflective commitments, commitments which will not be extinguished when we take them to heart under conditions of undistorted discourse.

[quoting William James] There is no such thing possible as an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance…In other words, there can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man [sic] has had his say.”…The method also responds to what [John] Dewey characterized as the “deepest problem of modern life,” namely, “restoring integration and cooperation between man’s [sic] beliefs about the world in which he lives and his beliefs about the values and purposes that should direct his conduct. It is the problem of any philosophy that is not isolated from that life.

The best art criticism shouldn’t even talk about art – Steve Cottingham opens the door, but can’t walk through

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/24/2015

No one cares about art criticism: Advocating for an embodiment of the avant garde as an alternative to capitalism – Steve Cottingham

There are good bits in this piece, but the citation of K. Goldmsith is surely too much baggage for this piece to carry (given recent events). And certainly one should raise an eyebrow at a piece that complains of art criticism “as isolated and protected as an artwork in a white cube,” yet cites Tirdad Zolghadr, Boris Groys, Our Literal Speed et al. who are themselves purveyors of such precious and predictably jargoned writing/speaking as to be source material for the “cut-up” method of generating exhibition wall texts. The explanation for this resides of course in the continued fascination with an avant garde strategy – “I [Cottingham] want to ask: what if art criticism not only charted the avant-garde but embodied it, too?” But I want to ask what if art criticism abandoned the notion of an avant garde and especially its dated strategies? Cottingham is on a far more promising path here “But what can art criticism learn from New Journalism, immersive reporting, and Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-addled sports coverage?” I would not describe those as avant garde and would add to that list: the facebook flame war, the celebrity roast, the sports talk radio show, the street corner preacher, the coffee klatch, the fan fiction discussion boards, etc.

I would not so humbly offer my own “practice” (which of course isn’t one, or can’t be called one without scare quotes) as a partial solution to some of the quandaries posed. Take the conversation out of the hands of the art journals, the symposia, the universities, and into all the disreputable, trivial places like facebook, blogs, and bars. Maybe the best art criticism shouldn’t even talk about art. Be polite. Be mean. Be drunk. Be angry. Be respectful. Be a fucking jerk. Each is an appropriate tactic at certain times. But above all, don’t take yourself too seriously especially if you insist on continuing to talk about art. We must truly address the “problem with professionalization” (something I’ve posted about extensively on this blog) as Cottingham puts it [emphasis added]:

Art criticism is in crisis because we have a problem with professionalization. We are steeped in the vernacular of capitalism, and we are afraid to leave it. Our world is rife with administration, mimicking the bureaucratic processes of the corporations so many of us profess to hate. We are content to let our artistry cease as soon we begin writing proposals, drafting business letters, and carefully collating our résumés. We push limits and subvert expectations everywhere except on the back-end, that realm which increasingly dominates artistic practices.

Too often, we seek to industrialize our passions. We simultaneously demand creative and financial nourishment from what my grandmother’s friend once dismissively called “a hobby.” Art critics laud artwork that resists capitalist pressures, but rarely does the criticism equally embody the form of this resistance.

I have also talked incessantly about monetizing passions and what that, along with adopting a language and culture of work implies for such passions. So, I would offer the same advice to art critics, that Kaprow offered to artists: “Once the task of the artist was to make good art [criticism]; now it is to avoid making art [criticism] of any kind.” Or: “Artists [art critics] of the world, drop out! You have nothing to lose but your professions!” And finally: “…the idea of art cannot easily be gotten rid of (even if one wisely never utter the word). But it is possible to slyly shift the whole un-artistic operation away from where the arts customarily congregate, to become, for instance, an account executive, an ecologist, a stunt rider, a politician, a beach bum. In these different capacities…[art] would operate indirectly as a stored code that, instead of programming a specific course of behavior, would facilitate an attitude of deliberate playfulness toward all professionalizing activities well beyond art.” So rather than being art critics, become unart critics. Congregate in those uncustomary places, use your creative/critical/empathetic/poetic/agitational powers in every nook and cranny – sometimes, if you insist, in the mausoleum of art , but don’t be “afraid to leave it” either because I “can’t imagine a more thrilling place to be.”

This *actual* world – an antidote for academic philosophy (Preface – Chapter 2)

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/20/2015

Philosophy & This Actual World – Martin Benjamin

In 1907 William James spoke of the “seriously inquiring amateur in philosophy” who turns to philosophy professors but finds them wanting. The problem is not with the serious amateur, James explained, but the professors. Philosophy should do more than exercise our “powers of intellectual abstraction.” It should also “make some positive connexion with this actual world of finite human lives.”

*Embodied social action* is at least as important to philosophical inquiry and understanding, James and Wittgenstein each insist, as *abstract thought or contemplation.*

At one point James put it this way: “The knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foot-hold anywhere, and passively reflecting on an order that he comes upon and simply finds existing. The knower is an *actor*, and coefficient of the truth which he helps to create. Mental interests, hypotheses, postulates, so far as they are bases for *human action – action* which to a great extent transforms the world – help make the truth.” Nearly seventy years later Wittgenstein wrote, ” Giving grounds, however justifying the evidence, comes to and end; – but the end is not certain propositions’ striking us immediately as true; i.e. it is not a kind of *seeing* on our part; it is our *acting*, which lies at the bottom of the language game.” …[James and Wittgenstein share a]*pragmatic temperament* – one that speaks to the whole person, embodied social agent as well as intellect.

For too long academic philosophers have ignored the questions of serious, intelligent, well-educated men and women from all walks of life who do not have time for concentrated study in philosophy.

…Peirce criticized radical skepticism and the idea that we acquire knowledge of the world as individuals rather than as members of communities.

…A pragmatic temperament, however, acknowledges that *genuine* philosophical questions are not a matter of intellect alone. They are raised by the whole person and involve both the street…and the classroom. Action without thought, to adapt a phrase from Kant, is *blind*; thought without action is *empty*. If our minds cannot simultaneously occupy the worlds of the street and the classroom when we’re doing philosophy, they must at least enact a dialogue between them. Philosophical questions worth asking must be responsive to the demands of both, as must our answers of them.

…we who raise genuine questions about knowledge, reality, mind, will, and ethics are not, first and foremost, isolated, disembodied Cartesian observers *of* the world, but rather embodied social agents *in* it.

Pragmatic considerations are inseparable from certain social *practices* – and practices are themselves constituted by patterns of (embodied) human action…correct language use…presupposes membership in a community of embodied, language-using agents.

One reason “so few human beings truly care for philosophy,” William James observed, is its “monstrous abridgment of things, which like all abridgments is got by the absolute loss and casting out of real matter.” The “real matter” to which James refers includes the wide variety of rich and concrete realities that comprise our daily lives. Abstract ethical theories, for example, cannot capture the various complexities of everyday moral decision making. “The entire man [or woman], who feels needs by turns,” James points out, “will take nothing as an equivalent for life but the fullness of living itself.”

…Successful navigation in life, as on the sea, requires knowing when and how to tack between viewpoints. Those who remain utterly blind to a more objective or detached picture of their betrothed or lovers are ill-advised to make long-standing personal commitments to them;

“That is well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our garden.”…

To cultivate a garden is not to accept everything that happens as for the best. Weeds, disease, and drought are part of nature, but to a gardener these things are things to be reduced or eliminated. What Candide *does* in cultivating his garden (where cultivating a garden is a metaphor for doing our best to improve the conditions of our earthly lives) is in some respects a more powerful and eloquent “refutation” of Pangloss’s doctrine than anything he could at this point *say*. Deeds, not words, are the most fitting response. Pangloss’s abstract generalizations are simply beside the point; they don’t matter, do any work, or make any “connexion to this actual world of finite human lives.” For Candide it is no longer worth trying to refute Pangloss on his own terms; he has better things to *do*.

After a point, it seems to me, our response to radical skeptics ought to resemble Candide’s response to Pangloss. Even if we cannot refute them to *their* satisfaction, the fact that their doctrine makes “no positive connexion to this actual world of finite human lives” may be sufficient to relegate it to the margins of contemporary philosophy (though *not* to the margins of the *history* of philosophy, where it remains of the greatest importance). As embodied social agents we have a number of more interesting and important philosophical questions to address than those posed by the radical skeptic. Like Candide, then, let’s not worry too much about matters that make no difference to the way we (must) lead our lives. There are more fertile fields that need cultivating. And we’ll never get to them unless we can turn our backs on radical skepticism.

Wittgenstein devised “language game” to emphasize the connection between saying, doing, and rule-following…Language is “woven” into (we might better say “interwoven with”) the nonlinguistic actions of language users rather than superimposed on them…thinking and saying are not only inseparable from doing, but they are also kinds of doing. “Words.” as Wittgenstein puts it, “are also deeds.”

The moral of the story then, is that we do not have to identify the essence or specify necessary and sufficient conditions for words…[that notion] is based on a mistaken preconception about language – one that fails to take account of how language is actually used by embodied social agents like ourselves.

…Meaning cannot, therefore, generally be abstracted from the social practices or rule-governed patterns of behavior into which the use of words is woven…

To reject the possibility of a “master theory” of truth – one that provides a method for systematically distinguishing any and all true beliefs from those that are false – does not, however, mean we cannot distinguish truth from falsity…there is no super-duper method, prior to and independent of, these linguistic activities, that will allow one to magisterially pronounce on the truth of various claims made within them. It is the different language games themselves – their more or less complex and interrelated rules, practices, conventions, purposes, standards of judgment, and so on – that provide the ground rules or criteria we use in determining truth or falsity within them.

…The main point, for present purposes, is that (1) questions of truth and falsity cannot be separated from our language games (or vocabularies); (2) our language games (or vocabularies) cannot be separated from our actions; (3) our actions cannot be separated from our various aims and interests; and (4) these aims and interests are those of embodied social agents.

…Language use in not something in addition to (or superimposed on) most distinctly human activities, including complex thought; rather it is constitutive of them. Meaning is not a product of private ostensive definition or linguistic essences; rather it is a function of the way words are used fro certain purposes in certain language games. And truth is not determined by *directly* comparing what we say about the world with what the world is like itself; rather it is a property of either (a) individual beliefs or sentences that together with certain events or states of the world satisfy the rules internal to a particular (useful or justifiable) language game or vocabulary or (b) entire language games that, given their purposes and their comparative advantages over competing language games, are more useful or justifiable than any practical alternative.

Understanding Gregory Bateson Chapter 5 – “Aesthetics, Ecology, and the Path Toward Grace

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/18/2015

Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, Beauty, and the Sacred Earth – Noel G. Charlton

…Firstly, he [Bateson] was linking the aesthetic, the beautiful, in “nature,” and in human art, with the possibility of enlightened ways of living.

…For him, life is a matter of patterns within patterns, all beautiful and hence aesthetic, arranged in levels and differentiated into logical types of lesser and greater generality.

…the aesthetic dimension of living, is able to enhance the possibility of our refinding grace, specifically *because* art is not subject to purposeful, language-bound, conscious rationality.

Poetry, he says, is not distorted prose. It is the reverse of that: prose is poetry that has been subjected to logic…We cannot expect to bring artistic or creative process wholly within the world of conscious purpose and description.

…Our limited, language-mediated consciousness, unaided by art, dreams, poetry, and other aesthetic practice, can no longer appreciate the systemic nature of mental process…As societies and individuals, *we* are dynamic patterns within the patterned world. *Love* can only survive if *wisdom* (recognition of the fact of circuitry) has an effective voice. Engagement with the aesthetic and the beautiful is a way to reclaim such wisdom

Later in the week, he was asking whether any social system could be viable “with only laws and ethical principles and no play, no art, no totemism, no religion, and no humor”

An “ecology of ideas” may be a close synonym for aesthetic sensibility.

…”Gradually the realization came that they were choosing their integrity over their existence.” It would be nonsense to sacrifice integrity in order to save a religion “whose only validity – whose only point and purpose- is the cultivation of integrity.: Bateson’s point is that the validity of our mental processes is imperiled if we breach “the fine lines dividing the sacred from the secular, the aesthetic from the appetitive, , the deliberative from the unconscious, and thought from feeling.”

…to experience an aesthetic response is to recognize a fellow mental process.

…It is, claimed Bateson, the organism *in relationship with its environment* that is the unit of survival [rather than a mere individual organism or a species]. From his earlier statements, it is clear that he sees aesthetic recognition of relationship as a necessary aspect of survival.

…Here he is beginning to emphasize that aesthetic process – the production and recognition of beauty – *is a feature of evolution.* Evolutionary creativity is mental in kind. it is analogous to, and is a special case of, mental creativity and artistic process. The products of evolution become examples of art. The artistic products of humans are similarly “marked by the evidences of that mental creativity.” We can now search for the “criteria of mind” among all the products of mind: evolutionary, environmental, natural, and artefactual.

…[re: Wordsworth] “This something more is self-reflexive recognition. The primrose resembles the poem and both poem and primrose resemble the poet. He learns about himself as a creator when he looks at the primrose. His pride is enhanced to see himself as a contributor to the vast processes which the primrose exemplifies. And his humility is exercised and made valid by recognizing himself as a tiny product of those processes.”

…As explained earlier, information is not, for Bateson, just data or words about facts or things in the world. It is any “difference which makes a difference,” [cf. Derrida’s “différance”] any item of “news” – novelty, change, contrast, comparison, growth, evolution, symmetry, asymmetry, similarity, or dissimilarity – that is relevant to the relationship in which it is perceived. Bateson says that the understanding of the “deeper symmetry of formal relations” is basic: “Never quantities, always shapes, forms and relationships..” There is always connectedness.

…It’s not a new idea that living things have immanent beauty, but it is revolutionary to assert *as a scientist*, that matters of beauty are really highly formal, very real, and crucial to the entire political and ethical system in which we live.

…Mind, learning, evolution, rigorous art, and loving science are one.

grace as that which enables the recognition of our relational embeddedness in the living world

all organisms, not just art critics and philosophers, rely on aesthetics all the time.

In pursuit of meaning – eudaimonia expanded

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/17/2015

Happiness, and all that crap – Clive Hamilton

The pleasant life, or life of pleasure, is one motivated by hedonism – the desire to maximise the number of emotional and physical “highs”. This is the signature of modern consumer capitalism. Within constraints, it is possible to learn the skills necessary to foster the pleasant life, including techniques for amassing income, giving greater access to hedonistic pursuits. Although self-centered, for people committed to the pleasant life the focus of activity is always outwards – looking to the external world to provide sources of satisfaction. Status seeking through career success, for example, can be counted as a feature of the pleasant life because of its emphasis on external reward.

The second approach is the good life. It can be thought of as a life devoted to developing and refining one’s capabilities and thereby fulfilling one’s potential, an orientation adopted by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen in their work on development and wellbeing. Whereas the pleasant life borrows from the future in order to enjoy the present, the good life invests in the present in order to augment the future. Among the characteristics of the good life are purposeful engagement, positive self-regard, high-quality relationships, environmental mastery and continued personal growth.

Aristotle argued that each of us has a daemon, or spirit, and that the purpose of life is to discover and honour it, so the “good life” approach is close to the idea of eudaimonism. The contrast between the pleasant life and the good life reflects the ancient dispute between the Epicureans and the Stoics, and there is now a body of psychological research supporting the distinction. The former is an intensely subjective idea of wellbeing explored through notions of positive affect (or emotion). It is easily, but not very reliably, measured by surveys of subjective wellbeing.

The meaningful life, the third approach to living, is similar to the good life insofar as it may require the development of one’s “signature strengths”. But whereas the pursuit of the good life can be self-focused – the athlete or musician perfecting their skills through years of training and achieving “flow” – the meaningful life entails a commitment to something greater than oneself, a higher cause. Those committed to a meaningful life are not, in fact, committed to their own lives, but to social improvement, or to living in a register that transcends the personal.

For those who pursue the meaningful life, the boundary between the self and the other is permeable. The meaningful life corresponds to what the philosophers of the past understood to be the pursuit of virtue, or selfless moral principles.