Two birds in a tree
One pecks, flits about incessantly
The other looks on, silent, still.
Rg Veda, from the Sanskrit
The ‘ascending pile’ that is Asia today–what is its conceptual shape? How to take its sound, its ‘uproarious din’? What are the see-think-know modes it is spawning, its creative surges, its art practices? Should we see it as a mundane or mental patch of territory, an empirical or noumenal figure? As the Third Guangzhou Triennial project takes off from its launch pad. ‘Farewell to Post-colonialism’ and ‘Restarting from Asia’, it is shot through with such queries and quandaries: a striking example is Gao Shiming’s ‘Questionnaire’ for the China art world and beyond. These set the scene for ‘Asia-in-the-world’, for unpacking its core poser: does it herald an alternative conceptual continent or simply the desire to step into the West’s shoes, to be its rivalrous lookalike-in Milton’s phrase, its ‘nether empire’.
Hard on its heels, another query: does ‘post-colonialism’ not sound like a bag-all term? From its beginnings, it signalled a plethora of ‘critiques and probes’ often at daggers drawn. Which ones are we to bid goodbye to – the original models, start-ups or pilot versions of the 1980s? Is it their followers, the epigone, avatars, second lifers? Or their derivatives that have become the critical-curatorial jargon of the art-culture industry today – an emerging, circumambient phenomenon I call the ‘spectacle of discourse’?
Also up for a grilling is the false dichotomy between ‘Post-colonial theory’ and art practice–the former as the usurping outsider crowding out the latter. Artists, quite early in the game, generated critical thinking on the ‘Post-colonial condition’ off their own bat. Their inquiries and insights surfaced from within their art activity-as immanent investigations. They sometimes brought to light themes that were until then not recognized either as theoretical objects or topics worthy of academic study-or as proper material for art. They are on par with theory output but distinct from it. Which bit are we waving off?
The ‘Farewell’ in question has a tricky double sense. On the one hand, we bid adieu to the post-colonial, wishing it the best of luck hoping it fares well. On the other, we wish to be shot of it, to part company, to split. It half-echoes Paul Feyerabend’s ‘Farewell to Reason’ (1987) that sound as if it dares us to dump the very stuff of thinking and logical argument. However, it is a ruse for spotlighting his real target: the brittle ‘rationalist principle’ that had ensconced itself as ‘reason’ – a crimped version that excluded other registers of reasoning. Against this, he was proposing a more open-ended, expanded notion of reason.
A touch of Feyerabend’s provocative ‘Farewell’ is at play here. At first, I was not a little gobsmacked by the strictures against the post-colonial that came with the invitation to co-curate the Triennial. It jolted me into nothing that ‘elsewhere’, ‘post-colonialism’ might have less approving connotations than those we were all too comfortable with in Western art-culture-academic circuits. Nevertheless, they hardly squared with my experience of how the UK had re-invented itself in post-imperial terms with investments in cultural diversity and the cosmopolitan ideal. Here post-colonial signalled stepping out of colonial subordination, even if this was a ragged affair with areas of authority yet to be unraveled. Neither did a blanket goodbye to the ‘multicultural’ seem to make sense for there was no readymade ideology foisted on us. It was forged both in a critique of Eurocentric thinking–and in the painful struggles for visibility by minorities and marginals, in the rub-up with quotidian immigrant difference, with the ‘other’ in our midst. In this light, ‘political correctness’ is as much a rough and ready, organic ethics secreted by everyday struggles as it is a flatfooted bureaucratic ploy to codify civil intercourse–though by no means escaping ridicule as self-parody as ‘PC gone mad’.
Johnson Chang’s charge of ‘PC at large’, floated in the Triennial’s early propositions, has to be similarly unpacked according to both China’s historical experience and actualities on the ground. ‘PC at large’ rings alarm bells about kowtowing to the status quo, toeing the party line, herd mentality that stifles acting on one’s own steam. It concerns political machination, control and being ‘corrected’ to fit in. In this light, we cannot but be wary of post-colonialism as one in a string of readymade ideological imports. However, for Ai Wei Wei, ‘Ideology’ is about having guiding principles for a meaningful life – a ‘design for living’. The lack of it, in contrast to past idealism, is reason for the present malaise, for empty, self-centres living. (Ai Weiwei).
For the radical stance beyond his view, the world is a better place without ideological movements. “Without Isms is neither nihilism nor eclecticism; nor egotism or solipsism. It opposes totalitarian dictatorship but also opposes the inflation of the self to god or Superman. Without Isms opposes the foisting of a particular brand of politics on the individual by means of abstract collective names such as ‘the people’, ‘the race’. or ‘the nation’. The idea behind Without Isms is that we need to bid goodbye to the 20th century and put a big question mark over those ‘Isms that dominated it”. (Gao Xinjiang. The Case for Literature.2008) We might pause to ponder whether ‘anti-ideology’ is not itself a bit of a doctrine, an ‘Ims’ of sorts. At any rate, from this viewpoint, ‘post-colonialism’ is little more than a manipulative agenda-another ‘Ism’ – that overrides individual, unfettered expression. Here ‘Farewell’ is no less than good riddance.
Peculiarities of the English
The view that post-colonialism harbours a dead-end preoccupation with colonial power in not unlike Toni Negri’s on the limits of the post-colonial paradigm with globalization (Empire.2000) But the complaint that it is inapplicable to China’s historical experience, that as a theoretical model it rides rough shod over the ‘peculiarities of the Chinese’ need closer attention. It parallels E P Thompson’s dogged defence of the ‘peculiarities’ of the English’–a feel for the grain of the concrete, the empirical and doable that shies away from overweening theorizing. One of the ‘grand systems’ he had in mind was Louis Althusser’s formidably abstract, Marxist categories of analysis. (The Poverty of Theory. 1975) The quandary is whether we can grasp the ‘dense peculiarities’ of the ‘ascending pile’ of China today without even a whisper of theory or an ‘Ism’ – ‘post-colonialism’ or whatever? This is not to deny that ‘stripping art bare’ of all ideological constructs such as ‘post-colonialism’ is an invigorating exercise-especially in an age when world-wide government functionality is increasingly taking creative activity under its wing. ‘ Strip ping bare’ resists the drive to codify art practice: it peculiarities, the unforeseeable vagaries of the art event–its singularity.
The bone some colleagues in China and beyond pick with the ‘multicultural’ is not so much with its spook Apartheid logic in which ‘some cultures are more equal than others’. Neither is it with its ‘managerial mentality’ based on reductive cultural-ethnic stereotypes. It is with the fact it falls short of the universal ideal – that multicultural difference can only splinter into warring factions. But do multiplicity and heterogeneity intrinsically spell breakdown and bedlam? We should not forget they are the force-field of singularity, individual quirk, variation teeming possibilities. Likewise, totality and oneness does not exclusively imply the totalitarian steamroller: it is also about co-operative association, unity of purpose, constructing the ‘commons’? Vital distinctions for the conceptual light-rope we walk in mulling over the multicultural today.
There are nevertheless some everyday examples of its skewed spin off that stick in the gullet. Two recent cases: a downtrodden caste in India, at the bottom of the social ladder, protests against being pushed too high up by new, fairer laws because they lose the benefits that go with their previous special ‘lowly status’. In a court case a few months ago, descendants of later waves of Chinese, mainly Taiwanese immigrants to South Africa, who were previously classed semi-honorary Whites and were beneficiaries of Apartheid, won the legal right to be re-classified Black. This means they now qualify for empowerment schemes under law of the post-Apartheid Rainbow.
Post-colonial Pharmakon or Panacea?
To speak of ‘post-colonialism’ as if it were a monstrous conceptual monolith overlooks the quarrelling viewpoints under its umbrella. What is up for scrutiny is a concoction extracted from them–a cod ‘post-colonial’ of well-thumbed slogans and shorthand: representation, self-voicing, identity, belonging, ‘other modernities’, Orientalist optics, migration, citizen/refugee, diaspora, authority/subordination, epistemic block and the like. It is not so much these terms in their original skin in the realm of pure theory that are in the hot seat. Rather, their mash up in the art-culture criticism-curatorial spheres-in the ‘spectacle of discourse’– that are candidates for fond ‘Farewell’.
The Post-colonial pharmakon (PP1) is a deconstructive probe in which critique is an oscillating positive-negative charge-in Derrida’s figure, both ‘poison and cure’. It is a 3600 swivel eye that relentlessly divide. Stopping short of simply valourizing the latter term over the former it highlights the latter term over the former it highlights their complicities and blind sports. PP1 is at odds with the Post-colonial Panacea (PP2), which is a strategy of inversion. It turns the tables on the West/Non-West, Europe/Asia power divide in a ‘utopian’ privileging of the subordinate, underdog term. Toppling the ‘heavenly’ dominant, it becomes its ‘nether empire’.
An issue ripe for ‘Farewell’ that PP1 embodies derives from Gayatri Spivak’s potent post-colonial purge. She had brewed this from a mix of East/West texts and ideas in her pharmacy lab, ‘Critique of Post-colonial Reason’ (1999), to show how, in the Kantian critique, the ‘transcendental turn’ produces in one go both the ‘Enlightenment space’ and the ‘subaltem’. The former hinges on the ‘foreclosure’ of the latter. Her remedial reading includes a homeopathic smidgen of Kantian poison-the brute empirical. It is not unlike Duchamp’s prescription for the retinal malady–a stringent dose of the retinal itself: ‘To Be Looked At (From The Other Side Of The Glass) With One Eye, Close To, For Almost An Hour’ (1918. Buenos Aires).
Is there an escape hatch from the wiles of ‘foreclosure’? With each historical step a new avatar of the ‘foreclosed’ pops up; from aboriginal through native information to colonial subject and subaltern, from women of the South to those beneath the radar, the wretched of the earth below the NGO line through the metropolitan migrant and refugee to the ‘non-Western other’ – another incarnation springs to place in apparently endless succession. Is this wallowing in the ‘underdog’ slot for which we have already taken PP2 to task? Here the ‘transcendental no-exit’ seems little than a conceptual conceit–an epistemic cul-de-sac where analytical thinking perfects an apriori system only to find itself locked up in it.
With scant mileage to the ‘transcendental turn’, what alternatives, what possibilities for break out, for going beyond the card it dishes out? At the risk of ridicule from Kant, who scoffs at the botchers who mix up their transcendental with their empirical, we might venture a frank turn to the ‘row empirical’. I mean a plunge into quotidian experience–into sounding the everyday rub-up of ‘mainstream/marginal, of self/other in their rounds of communicative endeavour beyond the uncrossables of language.
Out of the prison-house of concepts, immersion in the dense peculiarities of the ‘ascending pile’. With this dunking in discursive-non-discursive random encounter, pre-given lingo or grammar of self/other cracks and crumbles. From the smithereens, from ‘ground zero’, fumbling contact, scrapings of sound, ur-utterances well up – a tunnelling under the partitions of language. To illustrate this we might look at an extreme example the 07/07/05 murderous terror bombs in London. From within the incident, maimed mangled strangers sometimes managed to attend to one another, to eke out a lingo for the nonce – communicative gear emerging from scratch on the spot. This is not to eke out some consolation from in the terrible events. It is sound an elemental flare-up in extreme situations–the capacity to patch together ways of see-feel-think that leap over the self/other hurdle. Not least, this confounds what both fundamentalists and some theorists assume-‘epistemic blockage’ that does not budge.
Up for ‘Farewell’, is the celebrated spat over ‘PC at large’ between Star Theorist and Renowned Artist-the Star Curator was the missing link. The primal scene of the showdown was the making of the exhibition “One or Two Things I Know About Them” (Whitechapel, 1994). They fell out over whose rendering of the East End immigrant Bangladeshi community was more telling, more correct. The quarrel reaches back to Said’s quote from Marx in his epilogue to Orientalism: “ They could not represent themselves: they had to be represented”. He was flagging up possibilities of self-voicing and self-fashioning-cornerstone of both PP and PP2 – that would lie at the heart of the dispute.
The Theorist’s expose of contradictions within the immigrant community was unsparing: women’s subordination, sweatshops, grubby money, ‘backward’ notions of honour and shame. The Artist was less inclined towards an unrelenting sociologizing optic, more into sounding their plight with half an eye on local racist attitudes. His photo-film emanated from an immersive meander through other lives and terrains leasing out representations from the ‘dense peculiarities’ of the community. It clashed with the ‘transcendental tackle’ the Theorist had tooled ‘outside the community’ to hammer home her critique. Was she a specimen of PC gone mad? Or was the Artist-livered, overprotective? The Theorist suspected the Artist of succumbing to a blinkered, ‘nativist’ stance. The Artist felt the Theorist was blinded by an uncompromising analytic that rendered the community more vulnerable.
Huang Xiaopeng’s ‘Over-translation’
Versions of the spat reverberate across the art-culture world. In the Chinese setting, it takes the form of concern over whether the artist’s work and thinking is shown in its own terms. How to escape the ‘curatorial turn’ that scripts them in advance-framing them as ‘Dissident Artist’, Post-Pop Pop Artist, ‘Merchant Conceptualist’ and the like? A reaction is the search for ‘correct representation’–for keeping translation to an act of pure, literal transfer between the artist’s identity and how it is rendered without anything else creeping in. This tends to underestimate the extent to which all translation intrinsically involves ‘distortion’ – a dose of something more than what is being translated and less than it. The gap between original and translation highlights the sense of its ‘impossibility’, its stickier, no-go areas.
Huang Xiaopeng’s ‘over-translation’ pointedly captures the sense of a troubling surplus or a shortfall vis a vis the original. His video soundtrack features pop songs translated from English to Chinese and back again through machine translation in random permutation. The process shows up not only distorted representation, slipshod translation, flat mistranslation but also ‘creative mistranslation’ – ‘out of sync’ rendition that spawns new insight, fresh semantic stuff. The clamour of diverging representations and translations add up to a liberating ‘anything goes’ situation, to use Feyerabend’s phrase. In the jostle of disparate versions we are free to size up representations one against one another constantly-as opposed to judging and prescribing the ‘correct’ one.
With PP1 and PP2 above, the anxiety over ‘correct’ translation and depiction-always at stake in identify politics-drifts towards ‘representationalism’. This is, in Nietzsche’s terms, a ‘reactive stance’, where art and thinking are so embroiled with what they retaliate against that they are almost solely defined by it. Though the ‘deconstructive mode’ (PP1) tries that to shake free of this oppositional stance-typical of PP2-it remains within the ambit of the reactive syndrome. Modes of detoumement, inversion or transgression too are caught up in varying degrees by what they knock. For Deleuze, breaking through the representational crust is possible with the erupting force of an aesthetics that both harnesses and releases energies. This is the capacity for unhampered expression that emanates from its own occurrence and takes shape with reference only to it – a self-organizing event or autopoesis. A little like the flow, the ‘spontaneity’ (chi) in same Chinese aesthetics or the primal outburst (Sphota) of creativity in Sanskrit metaphysics?
The sense of an explosive, non-mimetic force resonates with the self-processing event of the marathon in Haruki Murukami’s ‘What I talk about, when I talk about Running’ (2006-2008). His grueling long-distance runs ‘sweat out’ body-mind states in random order. The highs and lows do not ‘represent’ anything. His down-to-earth obsessions are with pulse rates, knee-joints, ligaments, oxygen. They undercut the impulse to ‘read’ his long-haul symbolically-as if it ‘incarnated’ myths of arduous test, sacrifice, sublime transcendence. The run is passage through peculiar body-mind circadian cycles, filling to brim, emptying to the lees. Each threshold crossed, is a build up of sensation, affect, emotion but, as with the gamelan’s sonic flat-line, there is crescendo but no climax. Here ‘hitting the wall’ is ordeal, pain, a morale dipper, flagging stamina and both heightened and blank consciousness. During the endurance course, there are flickers of body-mind illumination. Nothing as grand as Enlightenment only the ‘opaque’ brain-brawn torrent pushing the run to its edge.
The peculiarities of Runner and Writer seldom cross paths in Murakami’s circuits. The run of writing hugs the inside lane of the grammar track: it is organized, static even when in motion. The marathon, on the other hand, presses on through wordless syntax-the body without organs. The contrast touches on Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s proposed marathon cum drawing event: Breathing is Free: A Running-Drawing Project 12,756.3 km –Jack and the Guangzhou Bodhi Leaf, 193km. The route of the run through Guangzhou is in the shape of a giant Bodhi leaf. Perhaps nothing as grant as the Tree of Enlightenment for it is also Jack’s Beanstalk of fairytale fame that shoots up unstoppably to the Giant’s heaven. It leaves us in two minds. Jun is at pains that this not a performance: it is always more than a representation and less than it. It is less ‘acting’ than perhaps ‘simply an act’ or the ‘enactive’. Here the running body-mind self-propels on the spume of the scriptless event.
Zeitdiagnose & Abhijnanasakuntalam
In the wake of the ‘Farewell’, we have a prelim probe for ‘Asia in the world’ – quasiclinical notes on the current conjuncture:
Memories of Underdevelopment
Grey Matter Economy
Thinking Through the Visual
Know How & No How
Light of Asia
The Great Learning
The Subjective Enlightenment
There are two pointers to the above: Max Weber’s Zeitdiagnose or diagnostic of the present, taking the sound of modernity and the global forces of ‘Asia in the world, –a non-totalizing score. The second is ancient India, Kaidas’s Sanskrit play: Abhijnana-sakuntalam (Sakuntala Recognized by a token). King Dushyanta, who fell in love with Sakuntala when they met in the sacred forest grove, fails to recognize her later because she had fatefully lost the ring, the token that was to ‘awaken’ their reunion. In the erotic mode or Rasa the play engulfs us with body-mind states of love, languor, desire, the flood and ebb of rapture and enlightenment. The text had circulated in Enlightenment salons: its prologue and the vidhUSka figure so enchanted Goethe that he crafted a similar device for Faust.
Weber’s Zeitdiagnose is about cognitive signs, social facts, statistical data that have to be configured to take a reading of the current state of play, of incipient developments and new bearings in modernity. Kalidas’s play, on the other hand, ‘embodies’ body-mind fill up and damp down – non-cognitive charges, feel-know indexical markers, affect traces, clouds smudges. The token by which Sakuntala is to be recognized is not an abstract sign that to be ‘read’ by code but a it is ring on her finger, the piercing force awakening consciousness. Here the modalities synthesize in seesaw. Objective subjective key. We have a glimpse of the approach perhaps in the Sakuntala series by King Rama V1 of Thailand (National Gallery of Art, Bangkok, 1910-25). His rendering verges on the angular with jabbing strokes, a querying, futurist tone-quite different from the attenuated, sinuous line of Indian depictions. With this modal mix, the suite ‘prefigures’ a proto-probe where the Zeitdiagnose annotates the Abhijnanasutalam and vice versa.
Why Pandemonium? In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lucifer/Satan and his rebellious Band, kicked out of Heaven, fall precipitously through dementing zones of Disorder and Chaos, the hell holes of Din and Hiss. Milton sound the cacophonous ‘other’ of the old ‘harmonious order’ – his epic reverberates with the topsy-turvy of new possibilities the English civil war had ushered in. The Band pass over sulphuric lakes, scurfy deposits, toxic fumes-not unlike the cratered, damaged environment of contemporary ‘Asia in development’. Nevertheless, the blasted landscape is also one of inventive construction where the architectural spectacle of Pandemonium goes up-the ‘ascending pile’ of giant columns, palatial halls, massive architraves. Satan’s labouring cohorts give us a snapshot of today’s towering engineering feats in Asia. The continent is a plane of transmutation: furious input of raw materials and minerals through a ‘sublimation’ filter: output of futuristic buildings, cities, crystalline commodities.
At the Pandemonium think-tank, the fallen Band scheme to regain their lost power by erecting a ‘nether empire’ to match and beat Imperial Heaven. To get at God, they plumb for the more devious plot of corrupting his new creation-the primal duo in Paradise. Pandemonium seethes with energies, a lab for alternative projects, uncreated worlds. The wild atmosphere of things on the boil visualizes a continent bristling with transformative, unknown potentials–Pandemonium Asia.
Memories of Underdevelopment
I am taking the title of Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s renowned film by that name (Cuba, 1968) as an initial component of the proto-probe. The film had looked back on Cuba after the revolution to note traces of underdevelopment that had not been ‘superseded’. ‘Backwardness, rottenness, lack of culture’ linger on in a society with pretensions to modernity and advanced socialist ideals. I am using this as a backdrop to evoke Seydou Boro’s (Paris/Burkina Faso) ‘dance-non-dance–that kicks off with the question: ‘How to get to Brazzaville?’ A woman fingers a nightmare route on a map: head far south to Johannesburg, then a maze-like backtrack to Central Africa, Perhaps onto Paris just to get to the country next door.
For Seydou, the regulation of movement in colonial travel networks mirrors how ‘dance’ regulates body-mind movement. The way colonial categories organize space-motion parallels how art genres parcel out creativity. They are structures of authority that define ‘identity’ as colonial subject, as ‘Dancer’-even as ‘contemporary African performer’ as curatorial jargon has it. These representations melt always as Seydou flexes out into action, writhing, thrusting out across a sandy patch, in between the cage bars of a container truck, down a long road, through the market place, For gobsmacked bystanders, is this a performance, someone crazed on the loose, an avant-garde Dancer? Neither ‘choreographed sequences’ nor entirely random workaday spurts of movement, they elude fixing as folk, modern, traditional or ‘Africa Now’. They tense, convulse to the edge. Emanating from its own propulsive force the body-mind presses n beyond given theoretical constructs such as ‘Post-colonialism’ to which it says ‘la ra love’
Emma Maresk and Over-Development
A key component of the post-colonial conceptual pantheon that is up for a seeing-to is the centre/periphery couple. This was flagged up with the arrival from China of the world’s largest container vessel, the Emma Maersk, laden with ‘Made in China’ Christmas goodies for the EU. To the gawping crowds at Tilbury for the spectacle, the ship encapsulated China’s manufacturing might. It also meant that other upcoming zones in Asia’s ‘ascending pile’ now mattered-regions previously beyond the pale as ‘Third World basket cases’. Re-drawing the classic N/S lines of division was a priority if we were not to be left fumbling with a skewed, out of date map.
Early in post-colonial debates, Trinh T Min-ha spoke of a ‘First World in the Third World, a Third in the First’ to highlight more complicities between centre/periphery than met the eye-a view fleshed out later in empirical terms in Amartya Sen’s ‘Development as Freedom’ (1999). With globalization, these entanglements become labyrinthine with ceaseless translation and mix across developed/developing lines. At modernity’s high tide, therefore, the ‘development plot begins to thicken’. Pockets of decline and malaise appear in the developed world: the effect of ‘post-development’ or should we say, in the wake of ‘over-development’? This does not imply that the N/S divide is less of a fault line: grave disparities and inequalities persist ‘in the South’. Rather, straddling the old divide, an unnerving space of ‘development and its discontents’ opens up.
The inside structure of the Emma Maersk shows computerized storage for precision location of every commodity on board. The programmed stacking momentarily recalls eighteenth century slave ships, their tiered bays in the hold choc a bloc with African bodies. This ‘memory of underdevelopment’ brings up a salient fact: the packing system shows how well China is plugging into the knowledge economy. However, it should not blind us to the abiding economies based on muscle-body labor power with their sweat-shop, suicide belts, factory regimen. The sobering fact is that brute toil of the visceral world hangs on as more than a memory in the knowledge economy’s pristine virtual world.
Grey Matter Economy
Two birds: Who is the real worker: piano-maker or piano-player?
Why grey matter? Because it spotlights the brain as a porridge –colour knowledge –producing lump of muscle. It brings back the visceral vis a vis the virtual in the knowledge economy that tends to be seen as entirely ethereal. As the brawn bit is spirited away, brain is thought of as a disembodied, purely mental affair. To speak of the knowledge economy simply as ‘immaterial’ or ‘intangible’ is only part of the story.
The query here is that if the knowledge economy is transforming relations between work, labor and creativity-then what are the implications for ‘creativity’ as understood in the sphere of art? Are these spheres folding into each other or is there still a specific creativity to art? The ‘deep’ concept of work, according to Andre Gorz (Farewell to the Working Class & Reclaiming Work, 1997) is an anthropological-philosophical construct, a project with a Hegelian ring, in which the self tussles with brute nature in a self-fashioning, world crafting process. Today work increasingly become mundane as it were, a matter of serial, changeable jobs (Jeremy Rifkin. The End of Work. 1995) it is no more ‘mere labour’ but involves creative thinking, imagination, capacities for planning and innovation. These qualities, once associated with only the managerial elite, are increasingly the ABC of the general workforce, especially against the backdrop of IT know-how which now permeates the oddest crannies of agricultural labour.
In his prelim notes to Capital, Marx saw there was no simple loss up between piano maker and player in deciding who was the ‘real worker’. It required establishing rigorous criteria for ‘productive labour’ in capitalist production to pinpoint the group of workers from whom maximum surplus value was squeezed put. If the piano maker fell in this core group, the piano player was lumped with the rest. They were ‘non-productive’ workers in the sense that ‘objectively’ less was milked out of them. This was a teaser
for the Labour Theory of Value-tied up with distinctions in old-style industrial production between workers and planners, brawn and brain, makers and thinkers. Post-Ford conditions were to overhaul the distinctions. The spotlight now falls on the piano player as the symbol of how creativity-grey matter activity in the heightened sense-is not extraneous to work anymore. It folds back into it and feeds productions with new ideas. We see the system actively tapping into the worker’s ‘creativity and imagination’. The shift away from the idea that he or she is an ‘alienated automaton or operative’ means that he or she is now billed as a ‘knowledge engineer’ whose store of inventive capabilities becomes the linchpin of production.
An early, striking attempt to put place a ‘knowledge economy’ was liferally, in the far South, in Chile. President Allende had invited Stafford Beer, the cybemetics management theorist, to set up the Operations Room from where worker-managers could keep track of national economic performance. The Ops Room was a futuristic, Star Trek HQ. The base constantly received updates of data from around the country in real time. By 1974, the Pinochet coup spelled the end of the experiment.
More than thirty years after, Mario Navarro revisits the Chilean interlude with his Liverpool project (2006). He erected a Buckminster Fuller dome, blood red translucent, as a version of the Ops Room in the Rotunda of the Municipal Library. The brain-shaped dome forms are encircled by wall-to-wall bookshelves – an earlier knowledge regime quietly passing into obsolescence. The Ops Room central command was for total surveillance and control over the economy, the management of resources, labour and information. Today these ring Big Brother alarm bells let alone those of 1984 dystopia. For Mario the renowned ergonomic armchairs of the Ops Room increasing look like machines for body-mind regulation. To design the chairs for his Ops Room the invited a group of people who had experienced change in their thinking or behaviour because of some event or accident. What they came up with was seating for comfort, for wallowing in. They took pleasure in wild, synthetic fur covers, garish cushions, kitschy knick-knacks. The armrests were not dotted with electronic buttons and knobs but place-holders for beer glasses and ashtrays-politically incorrect ‘design for living’. Mario ribs the robotic functionality of the original Ops Room. It gives way here to the vagaries of personal taste, individual quirk. Against hyper-efficiency, elements of error, mistake, accident in the vulnerable human run of things sometimes also contain glimmerings of new creative bearings. Has the Knowledge Dome mutated into the stately Pleasure Dome that Kublai Khan decreed in Xanadu – in the words of Coleridge’s poem?
Mario’s wit and humour enable him to raise a critical eyebrow regarding Beer’s conceptual models based on the brain-autonomic system and neural networks (Brain of the Firm. 1971). Duchamp had toyed with the notion of a grey matter, cerebral art. It was partly to counter the somewhat lowly. ‘manual’. Status of art encapsulated in the phrase ‘as stupid as a painter’ current then. He was also speculating on what an intelligent, conceptual art practice-one that sprang from the ‘cortex’ – might look like? The irony today is that not dissimilar smart ‘work-creativity’ speculations have become the order of the day in the grey-matter economy. If this marks the ‘corticalization of creativity’ as know-how, then it is even more crucial to keep the door open for, in Samuel Becket’s phrase, no-how.
Thinking Through the Visual
As with the double sense of Farewell, so with Thinking Through the Visual: it is thinking by means of the visual, in its viscous thick-and about unpacking its peculiarities to see how it ticks. Does it spawn ‘other’ kinds of knowledge? Thinking here refers as much to discursive forms of think-know, as to the non-discursive. In Sanskrit, Avidya touches on the ‘other’ of knowledge – it is the third term between and its binary opposite, ignorance. To sound its obscure surge we need to differentiate hard-nosed know-how from the flux of no-how.
‘Thinking through the Visual’ is not a lookalike of verbal lingo. Its charge is non-lingual, somatic, atmospheric murk, performative splurge. As an ‘aggiutinative mode’ its thrust is grammarless-putting into play associative merge, juxtaposition, non-inflexional elision. It sticks together elements in a piecemeal, ‘add on ad infinitum’ way. This is a vital alternative, as Feyerabend noted, to the control freak of dialectical thinking that irons out and assimilates all in its path. Various merz-assemblages spring to mind-Kurt Schzwiters, Rauchenberg, Thomas Hirschhom. They embody a non-assimilative force refuses to blot out otherness and difference.
We may contrast ‘thinking through the visual, to parsing, the epitome of chopping up flows of information into combinatory bits to configure algorithmic sequences. John Hoskyns’s ‘Wiring Diagram’ (Just in Time. 2007) tends towards this mode-a map of the sorry saga of the mid-seventies British economy, a Zeitdiagnose of the condition of the ‘sick man of Europe’ as on 01.10.1974. it reminded Mrs. T of a ‘chemical plant’ – a footnote to her tough remedy for Britain: the ‘Long March’ to roll back socialism and roll in the free market. His diagnostic works because a modicum of rules are at play, even if only thumb-rules. They can be applied consistently-a degree of ‘repeatability’ that would not only be unlikely but undersirable in art where repetition paradoxically throws up divergence and difference: each re-run of the original spawns a one-off variant. This puts it at odds with computational constancy, with the calibrated equilibrium of know-how and closer to the vagaries of the swell and dip of no-how.
The Subjective Enlightenment
Two Birds: Ezya Pound did not ‘know’ Chinese when he translated the Sung poets through Fenelassa’s notes. WB Yeats did not ‘know’ Sanskrit when he translated the Upanishads with Shree Purohit Swami. Cheeky Colomialists or precursors to an emerging figure key to our time-the Monolingual Translaror?
Qiu Zhijie video (1999) takes off from reflections on the Yuanmingyuan (Gardens of Perfect Brightness) or Enlightenment Gardens that British-French punitive forces wrecked in 1860 looting and razing adjoining buildings. The tone and atmospherics of his piece invite us to rove and jot down loose associations. What attitudes to the event over the years, through the Cultural Revolution and beyond to recent times when the Gardens have featured as a spot for honeymooners and tourists? Our musings drift towards two queries: what is the relationship between Enlightenment and violence? What is Enlightenment, anyway?
The first had been explored in the shadow of the Holocaust, notably in Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment – a bleak scenario of advancing consciousness shadowed by ever-new forms of manipulation, control and violation. With the end of Empire, one view was that violence was implicit in the Enlightenment project from its beginnings since it had taken shape in and through the period of conquest of ‘other’ cultures. In a stronger version, it is seen to have ushered in a ‘modernity of extermination’ that wiped out the Aboriginal world in a prefiguring of the Holocaust. Post-colonial bedlam and slaughter was harder to pin on the Enlightenment alone: this was post-independence bloodletting and strife after the colonial authorities had, as it were, decamped. We can compile an endless list: the murderous Partition of India at the tail end of Gandhi’s non-violent movement, the Cultural Revolution; Cambodia’s Year Zero, divided Korea, the Vietnam war, the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka and the like. Today, widespread global migration gives a particular slant to the query: can Enlightenment tolerance cope with the ‘other’ in our midst? The demand for assimilation that is made of immigrants, non-citizens, foreigners and ‘other’ marginal-that ‘they’ become like ‘us’ – is the thrust of ‘ repressive tolerance’. It is about erasing whatever’s different and unlike in the name of making ‘them the same as us’, about getting rid of the non-identical-a ‘xenocidal’ drive.
We are back to asking ‘What is Enlightenment? – a band of discourse stretching from Kant’s reflections through to Foucault and beyond. So much so that Qiu Zhijie’s video prompted me to wonder whether there were ‘other’ Enlightenment besides the European, on ‘other’ continents? What, for instance, of the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment that had critically queried ‘authorities and orthodoxies’: did the ‘Light of Asia’ count at all?
To think on one’s own feet without authorities, the capacity for autonomous thinking from within the momentum of the thinking process itself, these Edmund Husserl saw as a force singular to Europe in his landmark lecture. ‘Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man’, delivered on 10.05.1935 in Vienna. The self-organizing force of thinking meant that people flocked together as equals-getting stuck into discussion, crossing swords, honing argument and opinion in open rub-up. This is the ‘friendship model’ of discourse and knowledge production peculiar to Europe. Participants milled around as everyday equals and companions on a common plane exchange. For Husserl this was in stark contrast to the Asia model of knowledge that was a scene of one-to-one induction into wisdom based on initiation to a higher authority-the master, sage or guru. The relationship was top-down, parental as opposed to the friendship model that was lateral and sibling. The sacred grove of Asia was the site of osmotic transmission where the Master was the conduit for the knowing process passed down to the disciple. It stood at odds with the agora of Greece-an agonistic arena where knowledge was thrashed out in the rough and tumble of argument between interlocutors on the same footing.
There are a few holes we can pick with Husserl’s mapping-some are apparent quibbles like whether ‘Greece’ was applicable to the scattering of small states he had in mind or what bearing slave-owning had on the idea of ‘friendship’. He seemed unaware of the proliferation of models of discourse and knowledge in Asia: Confucian, Taoist, Tibetan Tantra, the Avestan and Sufi systems of disputation: in India, elaborate Buddhist logic, Vedanta rationalism, non-theistic, nitpicking reasoning such as the Nyaya-Vaisesika-to mention only a sliver. They could not be simply lumped as ‘mystical’ – term, in any event, that is often a misnomer for ‘other’ think-know modalities. Husserl and outlined these views at a poignant, dangerous moment when the Nazi’s had stripped him of citizenship and on the eve of the Holocaust. The Nazi scene of discourse had been staked out around the campfire of tribal territory cleansed of ‘the other’. It is against this rising ‘nether empire’ that his stark mapping took shape.
Later thinkers, notably Deleuze in what is Philosophy? (1994), updated and tinkered with elements of the ‘friendship model’ as a ‘plane of consistency’ where philosophical though is sheer conceptual creativity. Nevertheless, one query looms large: in the area of equals, how come some end up more equal than others? Is the ‘first amongst equals’ inevitable? Why does ‘friendliness amongst friends’ sour into anger and aggression let alone head-chopping? The orchestrator, the facilitator, the expert imperceptibly end up ‘in-charge’–a not uncommon process that we can observe in the institutional micro-routines of art academies, universities, co-ops, communes, ashrams. In these instances, Enlightenment goes into reverse gear as authority and hierarchy sneak back in through the rear-something Adorno mulled over in his very last talk on Radio Hessen. The friendship model seemed destined to teeter between positive and negative, to pass over from pulling together to daggers drawn, from agonistic to antagonistic.
Was the antidote a more stringent accounting of Enlightenment ideals-as uncompromising a stance as possible? This seems to be the drift of one of Adorno’s more robust jottings on the Upanishads. He found the Buddha community (Sangha) compromised because of restrictions on who could join. A consolation was the obscure outsider, Kankara: he saw this a radical to the left of the Buddha as an example of ‘uncompromising consciousness’. However, to have the most progressive programme, an unbending ‘universal’ constitution or the most inclusive diversity policy is perhaps less the point then making it a lived reality and of putting it into practice. Otherwise, It becomes little more than perfecting one’s stance for its own sake-rather like buffing up one’s PC medals.
To shore up the ‘friendship model’, I venture the notice of the Subjective Enlightenment. By this I mean an auto-reflexive force emanating from the ‘self-that odd construct of consciousness from which we normally derive the sense of being in the driver’s seat ‘in charge and in command’. The peculiar sense of self takes shapes in the zones of Hiss and Din of the neural networks of the brain: Oliver Selfridge had famously modelled it on the tiers of demonic, shrieking forces arrayed in Milton’s Pandemonium. How to get to grips with the ‘self’ that seems both utterly illusory and all-too real? Tussling with it in both its flimsy and substantial guises, is the start-up subjective condition that complements the Enlightenment’s objective ideals ‘out there in the everyday area of the world.
The auto-reflexive gives us the ‘view from within’-the ‘first-person’ take on consciousness to grasp how it ticks. It is about sounding its restless surges of aggressively and competitiveness, grappling with its violent fluctuations. The Buddha’s statement: ‘Held a light to yourself’ signaled the idea of bringing a searchlight to bear on the ‘ascending pile of the self’ caught up in its own delusory structures. From the outset, however, the Buddha’s statement was not to be taken simply as another ‘authoritative’ utterance or in-junction that had to be ‘obeyed’. It was the start-up for self-inquiry backed up by constant experimenting and testing of self-investigative procedures-the idea that Enlightenment is also about enlightening yourself, with an interior illumination as much as an exterior application. It is not Buddism that is prescribed that is prescribed here as a panacea, as a ‘method’, as another ‘Ism’ – but its spirit of experimental self-tooling where methods of self-inquiry are not pre-given but invented each time for the nonce.
Varela spoke of self-inquiry as part of the ‘technologies of introspection’. They are aimed at producing a state of ‘mindfulness’ where the mind becomes alert to its own process. One corpus of methods he mentioned was the Abhidharma texts, seven centuries of transcripts, drafts, reports on body-mind activity from around the Asia continent. He kept the door open for these introspective modes as alternatives against the positivist views that they did not come to scratch according to rationalist principles. The connotations of navel-gazing, however, are not easy to shake off: this forms the well-known thrust of allegations by activist applications of Enlightenment ideals against Eastern thinking-that it is self-perfecting, self-absorbed, quietist. This is at odds with what self-scanning is for which is to create the subjective conditions of engagement with the other, the capacity to listen and respond to the other ‘out there’. The aim is overcome tendencies towards getting the better of the other or to taking charge or control in favour of thinking and feeling with the other. Compassion in this sense is not so much about feeling sorry for or being charitable ‘from on high’ towards someone who is ‘down’. It is urge towards oneness with the other, a sense of companionship on ‘friendship model’. Varela had used the term ‘technology of the self’ to give self-inquiry the rigour of a methodology on par with other hard-nosed scientific procedures. Today this seems to fall in with drives towards the ‘technologization’ of the self, towards the application of readymade know how-rather than on the spot kluging at the heart of no-how.
Two birds: Ananda Coomaraswamy saw Nietzsche, through the eyes of Indian philosophy as the ever-widening urge towards the cosmopolitan – and cosmic – state without qualities. Georg Luckac’s saw him through Marxist lens as the ‘forenner of fascism’ bogged down in ever-delimiting qualities.
‘Re-start from Asia’–or ‘Asia Start-Up’ in computer lingo-is a wake –up call. The ambiguity in the little ‘Finnegans Wake’ allows Joyce to evoke the paradoxical state of a body that is neither dead nor alive, neither corpsed nor awake. ‘Asia in the world’ embodies this dual state-neither self-sealing continent, dead on tribal territory, essential ground nor simply continental flow in the global wash. It is a place with its own peculiarities and a current to ‘elsewhere’. This state, in terms of Sanskrit metaphysics, is both conditioned with qualities (saguna) and also a state without qualities (nirguna), condition-less Gamble alludes to the Buddhist version of this logical distinction in his reading of Tiananmen – applying it to identity ‘stripped bare’ of all qualities, perhaps of all ideologies too.
For her GT2008 proposal, Amy Cheung touches on the dual state through a glance at Tagore’s Gitanjali: the opening ‘Let my country awake!’ is a plea for India to break out of it ‘narrow, domestic walls’, out of ancient confines and colonial subjugation in order to forge that continent-in-the-world where ‘knowledge in free’. With Tagore we have the signpost of one episode in many waves of exchange India and China as they embarked on different paths to modernity. Amy’s quote from the Gitanjali, sums up the dual state of identity and non-identity, being and non-being:
‘I dive down into the depth of the ocean of forms’
hoping to gain the perfect pearl of the formless.’
Underwater, the tug-o-war of two continental plates cannot hold. They lose grip, split, ride up against each other glugging back the acean to the lees. Then out spews an angry flood than hurles to the coast, drowning the Asian shore.
Ezra Pound’s polities and his anti-Semitism were obnoxious the pale. His translations needled the scholars let alone his ‘thoughts on the Analects of Confucius’, ‘The Unwobbling Pivot’ and the like. He got the linguists’ hackles up with his penchant for pontificating on the Chinese language. To top it, and at odds with his ‘attitudes’, there is no let up in his dogged engagement with of ‘Oriental Other’ – what he called his ‘decipherings’. From the eages, creative muddle of his ‘ideogrammic’ method an element comes up for attention today-what he saw as the opposed modalities of thinking-Confucianism and Cartesianism.
The labels are no less bag-all than ‘post-colonialism’. He related the Cartesian mode to the capacity to brushes aside the particular texture of an entity, the event’s singularity in order to render it in terms of general principle, the universal. Against this desiccating, abstractive mode, he pitted the Confucian way of embodying general in one swoop – a force he attributed to the ‘concrete’ nature of the Chinese characteristic. We are in the deep waters of a long-standing Orientalist, perhaps xerographic optic on the ‘Chinese ideogram’ – from Hegel on its pictorial-hieroglyphic from to Leibniz on its ‘algebraic’ to Derrida’s reflections on its non-alphabetic, non-phonetic potential as counter to logocentric’ to Derrida’s reflections on its non-alphabetic. non-phonetic potential as counter to logocentric, Western metaphysics. Scholars of Chinese have been at pains explain how off the mark this is in relation to how the language actually functions. It perhaps tells us a more about ruminations on the limits of Western reason and representational systems. Today, however, the somewhat questionable distinction between the Cartesian sign and Chinese characteristics signposts the tussle with difference, between self/other to cross the epistemic divide. The concern is not so much with pointing up what is right or wrong from some fixed post-colonial stance. It is with affirming the way concepts have to be knocked together, how the elements of know-how and no-how have to be brought into play for the ‘epistemic crossing’. It is sheer creativity of the process-during which, true enough, much gets told by either side about themselves-that looms into view today. With this the visual-lingual mode that compresses the abstract-concrete that Pound attributed to Confucius: does it open up a critical chick of an alternative possibility to the increasing dominance of the retinal-computational mode?
The ocean swells, spills over drowning the Asia shore. Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho Riyanto.2006) we might say in an after-the-deluge Wake for Asia. The swell and dip of the surf in the finale, is both threatening and soothing: nature can Intervene with brute devouring force or simply bide its time in eco-disasters yet to come. The film’s backdrop is the Indian epic, Ramayana, the Abduction of Sita section. The epic is about Rama and his brothers forest exile, the snatching away of his wife, Sita, by the demon King, Ravana. The plight of Sita, who is cosmic feminine energy, is as much a volation of woman as it is of ecological equilibrium. The word Sita in Sanskrit literally means the furrow, the earth ploughed again and again. A song in the film voices the state of actual women in patriarchy as opposed to their cosmic roles as creative energies of the earth. As a Zeitdi-agnose of the Asia present, the film weaves into the epic tale everyday life and loves and conflicts of contemporary men and woman the fatal passions of Siti, Seito, Ludiro-in the bustle of trade and commerce in today’s Indonesia.
In the epic, Sita’s rescue can only take off once she recognizes Rama’s ring shown to her by the Monkey God who is on a reconnoitre mission staking the joint of the demon king. As with Sakuntala, recognition by a token is not a reading but radiance, the blinding flash of an awakening. We are drawn in, drowned in glowing clouds of affect, orgasmic smudges, emotional charges well up and ebb through the sonic-dance-colour in the erotic mode or Rasa. The sonic flat-line of the gamelan in both its classic intensities and its contemporary surges carries this along with the Hiss and Din of its street pop forms. Elements of the Sufi and Catholic sonic-image worlds flit by mingling with the Hindu Buddhist. The sonic flat-line of crescendos without climax, source of the 1000 plateaus the body spilling beyond its organization...
A turmeric-yellow sheet, devore voile, flutters in the sea breeze. It’s the bower where Siti’s stabbed, a sacrifice takes place. The body-mind races fast and further into the oceanic thick the Sufis and Hindus call ‘Sur’. We drift in and of its turbulence, the sound and fury of Pandemonium Asia.
This essay is dedicated to my co-curators Gao Shiming and Jahnson Chang–tutors extraordinaire–from whom I have learned immeasurably. My thanks to the Research Curators, Dorothee Albrecht, Tamar Guimares, Steven Lam, Khaled Ramadan, Stina Edblom for their intelligent input and vigorous questions. To the PHD Research Group, Malmo Art Academy, Lund University, Sweden, the Solo Dance class, Universitat du Kunst, Berlin and the New Media Lab, Banff, Canada.