Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
13th December 2012

On Peter Sloterdijk’s The Art of Philosophy

The Art of Philosophy: Wisdom as Practice

by Peter Sloterdijk

Reviewed by John David Ebert

The new Sloterdijk translation, put out by Columbia University Press and originally published in German in 2010, is something of an appendix to his monumental recent book You Must Change Your Life! (due out in English next year). It is, as usual with Sloterdijk, a brilliant piece of philosophical / historical analysis: in this case, a cultural history of the so-called contemplative thinker.

The book’s English translation is somewhat misleading, however, sounding like a banal pop psychology title, when in fact the book is nothing of the kind. Its original title in German was Suspended Animation in Thought, which distills much more exactly the book’s primary theme, a cultural analysis of the archetype of the thinker since Socrates and Plato as the one who is “dead to the world.”

Sloterdijk begins by borrowing some of the terminology of Husserl, especially the term that Husserl adapted from the tradition of Greek skepsis, epoche, or the bracketing of the so-called  “natural attitude.” The thinker is precisely one who is made fit for epoche, or bracketing — that is, setting aside the natural attitude of lived experience — or taking a position on specific affairs in the world in favor of creating a purely contemplative and theoretical vision of the world. This is, of course, precisely the attitude that Heidegger inverted by insisting that the theoretical attitude is not primary but rather our careful and concerned dealings with existence in a real and concrete way.

But Sloterdijk sees the origins of the thinker who is dead to the world, i.e. who is capable of setting Life aside so that he may think about it — the thinker is always one who is mentally Elsewhere — with the disintegration of the polis in fourth century Athens in the time of Socrates and Plato. In 387 BC Plato set aside his own heterotopia for thinkers in the creation of his Academy as a space located on the fringes of the city specifically set aside as a utopic colony for thinkers who created themselves by shunning society, and indeed, Life itself, in order to build a career out of thinking about it. Plato’s eventual contempt for politics was a side effect of growing up during the period of the wars between Athens and Sparta which had the effect of ravaging those city states in a fratricidal conflict. From henceforth, the thinker was the man of pure contemplation who did not deign to bother with worldly affairs, especially of the political kind, and who exchanged membership in a polis with the larger membership in a purely theoretical polisphere, the brotherhood of those inclined to theoretical contemplation.

Indeed, Sloterdijk has hit on one of the basic structural features of the great philosophers of the Axial Age that extends from about the year 1000 BC throughout the subsequent millenium: with the disintegration of cities into incessant warfare all over the globe, a new species of thinker emerged during this period, a thinker who was concerned not with following the religions or philosophical orthodoxies of the city state, but rather with thought systems of self-salvation in which the individual was given the tools to save himself by entering the Eternal City of the True World. Hence, Lao Tzu’s contempt for the city in China runs in parallel with the Buddha’s in India, who also turns his back on the city; while in Greece, Pythagoras and Plato establish separate colonies, or zoological exospheres, for contemplative spirits. (Indeed, this generation of thinkers was foreshadowed by the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first character in literature to leave the city behind in search of a larger communion with the cosmos, on the one hand, and with the pharaoh Akhenaten, who left Thebes behind to build the world’s first utopian city, on the other).

The thinker, as we have come to know him throughout the metaphysical age that unfolded from Plato to Husserl, was shaped largely on this basic archetype as the man who, though an apparent loser in the arenas of life, was yet a victor in the realm of the mind. Socrates was the first to set the pattern of turning an apparent loss into a victory precisely by affirming his defeat and claiming on his deathbed that he owed a cock to Asclepius, implying that the god of healing had finally, through death, healed him of the sickness of life.

But it was in the beginnings of the disintegration of the metaphysical age during the nineteenth century, according to Sloterdijk, that this archetype of the thinker dead to the world, locked into a kind of state of suspended animation, was assassinated. (Sloterdijk illuminates the metaphysical age here as anchored in, and made possible by, the invention of the thinker as we know him during the Axial Age of circa 1000 BC, thus clearly showing [as Braudel said of Europe vis a vis Asia] that the metaphysical age was merely a chronotopic peninsula of the Axial Age).

The assassination of the thinker as subject of suspended animation was accomplished by blows from ten assassins, according to Sloterdjik, beginning with Karl Marx, who was the first to redefine the thinker as someone involved in the political and revolutionary project of moving history forward by helping to dissolve capitalism. The thinker is not at all dead to the world, but one who is always, in some way, involved in the ongoing revolution. Nietzsche, next in line, in announcing the death of the metaphysical True World, showed that there was no longer a True World for the thinker to escape to, and that he was much better off anchored in the world inside his own skin. Heidegger, of course, in overturning Husserl’s thinker fit for epoche, helped to dissolve and dismantle this transcendental subject. Other assassins, including feminism, science and even cognitive science, followed.

Thus, the three thousand year old archetype of the thinker as one who is dead to the world, is now itself dead. The thinker is today seen as one who is both active and involved in the world through various political and sociological projects that have debased and undermined the building of transcendent castles in the air.

Sloterdijk doesn’t tell us much about the consequences of this death of the subject of suspended animation, but the implication from the text is that it accounts for the decline of philosophy in the twentieth century and its lack of ability to remain relevant to the civilizational project as a whole. In losing his theoretical distance, the thinker is now always biased in some way, and so suspect nowadays of ulterior motivations. He can no longer be trusted as a bearer of pure truths from a glittering realm of Platonic Essences brought down by him and given birth in the physical world.

Sloterdijk’s book is scarcely one hundred pages in length, but he packs more insight into it than most thinkers who write scores of such books. It is beautifully written, lucid, and an absolute gem. It is also a good place to start if you have never read any of Sloterdijk’s other magnificent texts.

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12th September 2012

On the Art of Joseph Beuys

The Damaged Cosmology of Joseph Beuys

By John David Ebert

The Crisis of Meaning

Whenever an Age collapses — whether by natural catastrophe, barbarian invasion or gigantic war makes no difference — the collapse itself generates a crisis of meaning.  Things, that is to say, in a broken age, no longer mean what they used to mean. A piano, for instance, in the Classical Age, was an instrument, especially in the hands of a Beethoven, for sounding out the cosmic architecture of the Creator’s infinite spaces. In the art of a post-metaphysical age, however, it becomes a suspect instrument, an object of rupture and communication breakdown, a sign that objects are withdrawing from each other into their own innermost recesses as each fractures away from the other into its own private world of silence. Hence, a felt-wrapped piano in a post-metaphysical age is an object that has been reterritorialized to perform a different function within a different age.

Inside a functioning macrosphere things have meaning that is ascribed to them by transcendental signifieds that give them their place in the cosmic order and prevent them from sliding along the Chain of Being, coming loose and bumping into objects that may, or may not, have any relevance to them. The problem of an age when a functioning macrosphere no longer exists — as, for instance, has been the case since World War II — is that the meaning of things is now uncertain; indeed, a creeping suspicion begins to dawn that they might not have any meaning anymore at all. Another larger, more ominous suspicion, too, begins to arise, namely, that the artist might no longer even matter, since it was with the bricks of his very Ideas that the entire edifice of the metaphysical macrosphere had been built in the first place. What need, then, for his Ideas, in an age when all macrospheres have broken down, and society seems to function on its own as a machine outside of all Worlds whatsoever? Is he, indeed, necessary at all anymore to the functioning of such a society?

Hence, the crisis of contemporary art, a crisis which no artist epitomizes more than Joseph Beuys. In a post-metaphysical age, the job of the artist is an entirely different one than it had been before, when his Ideas were used to construct the actual fabric of the functioning cosmology. Now, his job is not to build the cosmology of a macrosphere, but rather to reterritorialize once familiar objects, to recode them so that they perform strange and new functions that rupture all traditional categories once ascribed to them. In doing so, a new cosmology does not — indeed, cannot — any longer come into being. Instead, what happens is that the objects reveal strange new abysses of meaning hitherto never before suspected, abysses that bring into question the very idea of meaning itself.

What does it mean for this or that object to signify? It means that it has been given a function to perform by an artist, one that the population of a given society may take and accept as a whole (in a functional Age) or may not. In the latter case, we arrive at the situation today, in which artists can no longer construct macrospheres for the society as a whole, but instead create private microspheres for their ever smaller, and more remote, cults of the elite, those who, as in the various Mystery cults that flourished in the ruins of the Hellenistic Age, must be initiated into its private mysteries.

Nowadays, the artist is closer in function to the priest of a private mystery cult into which one must be initiated, but art no longer functions in a way that builds up an entire World for an entire population. It is a broken world now, and each artist has become the priest of his own mysteries.

How to Reterritorialize an Object

But then, what does it mean, precisely, to reterritorialize something?

Deleuze and Guattari have, in their various books together, introduced us to this idea, especially in A Thousand Plateaus, in which they say that the hand, for instance, is a deterritorialized paw; the human face, likewise, a deterritorialized snout; but more specifically, lips, teeth and tongue have been deterritorialized from their original function as organs of nourishment and then reterritorialized to their Anthropogenic function of building language as the House of Being. A reterritorialized organ is an organ that has been recoded to perform a function that is altogther different from what it was originally designed to do. The human being, Deleuze and Guattari point out, is the animal of reterritorialization par excellence.

But with art we are dealing with signifiers and their relationship to various signifieds. If the signifieds — especially the transcendental ones like God or the soul or Heaven — have broken down, then the signifiers have to be recoded to refer to different, and perhaps even, brand new signifieds invented by the artist himself. Conversely, however, it may be the case that the artist wants to retain the old signifieds, but has to invent entirely new signifiers as fresh clothing with which to reincarnate them, as it were. This is precisely the case with Beuys, who differs from most other contemporary artists in this respect (Warhol, by contrast, invents entirely new signifiers and new signifieds to go along with them).

Take Beuys’ Virgin of 1952 (shown above), one of his early works, as an example: here the ancient signified of the goddess as an archetype has been retained, not scrapped. However, the outer vestments of her signifiers have been completely redrawn, for in Beuys’ scultpture, she appears in schematic form (as in the ancient Neolithic) in which her legs have been spread apart to reveal her world-generating vagina. But the form, strangely, has been wrapped in gauze bandages and it has been given to us on a dirty, used pillow. The bandages signify that the situation with this ancient archetype has now taken on the status of a medical emergency: something urgent is involved. And the dirty pillow indicates that the grand formality of a previous age has passed, and now all that is left with which to present Her is this pillow salvaged from the ruins of some catastrophe or other. In other words, She has been reterritorialized to suit the vestments of a post-catastrophic society, a society that is locked into a post-traumatic stress mode in which it is still recovering from the prior disaster that has wrecked its macrosphere.

This, then, is the premise from which Beuys begins his work: all the traditional signifieds are recovering from war wounds and exist now in damaged form. Beuys, then, is working with a damaged cosmology, a cosmology in which the form-generating aesthetic fields are no longer functioning properly and so can only produce broken, frayed, warped, torn or otherwise damaged aesthetic objects. All of Beuys’ work, without exception, is painted and sculpted, inscribed, that is, on damaged surfaces: water-stained canvases; used sheets of notebook paper; broken, non-functional machinery, etc. All this implies that the form producing field of Western art has itself been damaged by the catastrophe. It is no longer capable of producing clean, symmetrical and beautiful forms. It can only produced mangled forms, just as though genetic defects had interfered with the morphic field of an organism, enabling it to actualize itself in space-time only as a deformed organism.

The entirety of Beuys’ work, then, taken as a whole, tells us that the morphic field of Western art can only produce damaged forms. The Catastrophe, in other words, was so profound, that it actually affected the West all the way down into its ontological recesses where art forms themselves are shaped and produced.

Cosmology A

The first phase of Beuys’ work, which extends from about 1948 to 1960, has its own quite distinct structural features which demarcate it like a geological epoch from the epoch which follows it beginning in 1960 (and which itself lasts until somewhere in the mid 70s). Long about 1960, his cosmology will undergo a complete restructuring into another, second, and very different cosmology from the one with which he started out.

That first cosmology is one in which Beuys hangs on to the basic signifieds of Modernism, drawing his inspiration, as is well-known, from shamanism and the cosmology of Rudolf Steiner. In the various plant and animal drawings from 1947-48, and the goddess sculptures of 1949, Beuys operates out of an essentially Modernist and mythically-inspired worldview: plants, animals, goddesses, and a fascination with the Steinerian etheric and astral forces which animate such phenomena. A masterpiece such as the 1949 “Sheep’s Skeleton” (shown below) or the bronze sculpture “Animal Woman” (below that) with its clear Paleolithic inspiration, are emblematic of this epoch.

But the primary Image of this epoch, its Ur-symbol, as it were, is that of the human body, specifically in its mode as that of Cosmic Man, or Woman since, in his case, it is the ancient signified of the Goddess that he is most concerned with at this time. A great deal of the art of this period is devoted to tracking the transformations of Goethe’s Ewige Weibliche: she is plugged into various cosmic circuits (Three Women of 1948); shuttled back and forth between the human and animal strata (Frau of 1957, where she is in the mode of the Queen Bee, or the various interactions with the Swan from this period); and inserted into diverse social personae, as well (such as Aktrice of 1956 [shown below] or Judith of 1957). She is the central figure, the surface of inscription, as it were, for all his musings.

Joseph Beuys, ‘Actress’ 1956

The human body, too, taken as a whole, is involved with all of this, especially in its spiritualized Steinerian form as etheric and astral bodies open to cosmic influences, such as the drawing from 1957, Girl astronaut, in which the top of her skull is left uncompleted in order to signify her receptivity to cosmic influences. Even the various bee sculptures and paintings from this time are but analogues of the human body, for Beuys directly analogized the bees a la Steiner to human blood cells building the honeycomb-like vortices of the bones just the way bees build their hives. The human body, during this period, is the constant preoccupation of Beuys and everything in the cosmos is, in some way, always referred back to it. The human figure is rarely absent from his art, either sculpted or painted, of this early period.

Thus, woman, man (the brilliant sculpture Deadman of 1955, of clay lumps wrapped in bandages, is the counterpart to his 1952 Virgin) and their various becomings-animal as they interact with goats, cows, swans and bees, form the basic cosmos of Beuys Cosmology A. It is not too dissimilar, in this respect, from the early Modernist cosmology of Jackson Pollock, which was also concerned with the Goddess, the Shaman and their becomings-animal before he liquefied them into his abstract canvases.

But: long about 1958 or so, this cosmology begins to disintegrate. It was, significantly enough, in that very year that Beuys constructed his Auschwitz installation, the harbinger of which was the 1957 painting Death and the Maiden (shown below) which depicts the shadows of two skeletons in an intimate embrace upon the back of a manila envelope stamped ominously with the address of “Auschwitz.”

This painting foreshadows the transformation of his goddess muse into a figure of disgust and repulsion, for in the paintings of 1958, she turns up almost exclusively in the mode of what Marija Gimbutas once called “the stiff nude death goddess” of the Neolithic. She is already there in the 1957 painting Madchen, in which the bony body of his muse now has band-aids in place of legs; and in various other paintings of 1957, such as Untitled in which she appears in the form of a repulsive spidery creature; or the bony figure of Salamander II (1958); or the reworking of his Virgin sculpture as a line drawing in the 1958 Frauenakt in which the vaginal orifice reappears as a creepy, well-shaped hole. The fire-spewing females of Hexen Feuer of 1959 are of the essence of this transformation.

In the Auschwitz installation, however, we notice that the human body is conspicuous precisely by its absence. In these vitrines, (shown below), there are blocks of fat on warming plates; decayed rolls of sausage; a mummified rat on a bed of straw; chunks of rusting metal; disused string; and other such objects. Nowhere do we find the human body, but only the traces which it has left behind in the wake of its disappearance into the ovens and gas chambers. For the Holocaust was tantamount to an eschatology of the human body, a vast and sinister apocalypse of the human being as incarnational vessel which could be disarranged, pulled apart and disarticulated like the processing of pigs and cattle in slaughterhouses. The Holocaust is, in essence, the anathema of the human form, an assault on the very ontological conditions of its presence in the world and a vision of the systematic liquidation of its structure and form.

But it is precisely the human body which, after 1958, begins to disappear from the art of Joseph Beuys. Instead, the paintings of 1959 are almost abstract expressionist in their deliberate disintegration of Form. In place of the human body, or indeed, of anything definitively formal at all, we see the brown rectangle of Battery (1959) [shown below]; the brown and gray smears of Hubert Troost (1959); the earth-like strata of Was Hirschhorn gerschah (1959); or the notebook page covered with black paint and a small square of red smears in the left corner of Gulo Borealis (1959). The paintings of this year are the closest that Beuys ever came to Abstract Expressionism, but, as with the multiforms of Rothko, they signify a similar kind of meltdown and dissolution of the artist’s previous cosmology.

Joseph Beuys, ‘Battery’ 1959

When the cosmology begins to recrystallize in 1960, what emerges in such sculptural works as Bathtub, Horns or Eisbar is a world that is void of human presence and which, like the haunting piles of clothing and suitcases and teeth left behind by the victims of the gas chambers, signify only the traces of a once present human being who is now conspicuous precisely by his absence.

Cosmology B

Art, after Auschwitz, must now become post-humanist. Just as Heidegger, in his 1946 “Letter on Humanism” argued that it was precisely the humanistic tradition as such that led to the atrocities of the twentieth century, and that a post-humanist vision would be one that would be attentive to Being, so too, with Beuys’ middle period — the grand apogee of his art — the human being has vanished into an impersonal cosmos in which the primary protagonists (as hinted at by the above Battery) are now physico-chemical forces rather than human beings themselves.

The key work that signifies the shift into Beuys’ Cosmology B is the 1960 sculpture entitled simply Bathtub. This work is the gateway, as it were, by means of which the new cosmology is born (indeed, Beuys says it was the bathtub in which he was born from his mother). In this work, the human being has been replaced by a trace of his once functioning world, a world in which this displaced object once made a certain kind of sense but has now been reterritorialized by Beuys in a post-catastrophic world to make another kind of sense altogether. For Beuys, the bathtub is an object of renewal and rebirth, no longer merely a place for washing the now non-existent human physical body. It is a displaced object, like an organ without a body, torn from the anatomy of the world inside which it had once functioned.

In the same year, his sculpture Horns (shown above) represents the fate of his earlier animal protagonists, for they, too, have now vanished (at least temporarily) and left behind only these traces of their presence, a pair of horns connected to tubes through which hare’s blood has been sent circulating. Beuys has said that it is a vision of the mystery of the circulation of the blood through the animal that produces its horns on an annual basis, but it is precisely the animal itself as a Figure that is now missing. It is a syncopated image: the viewer has to fill in the rest of the animal on his own, just as with Bathtub, he had had to supply the entirety of the missing human world inside which the tub had once functioned.

Beuys’ famous Fat Chair of 1964 is even more to the point, for in this case we have a signifier that is left behind by the vanished human being int he form of yet another trace, in this case of a chair, but a chair that is no longer occupied by a human being. In its former use, in another world (the metaphysical age of Van Gogh, for instance), it would have provided the human being with a place to sit, but now the object has been reterritorialized to perform an altogether different function, namely, to illustrate a metaphysical process of morphogenesis, for the slab of fat on the chair represents the principle of the Indeterminate which has now been given Form by placing it into the chair’s right angle, thus conferring on unshaped matter a metabolic Form. Thus, the chair has been reterritorialized to perform a metaphysical and distinctly non-human process that now becomes of the essence of Beuysian cosmology.

The Pack, too, (shown above), from 1969, illustrates the features of this new cosmology, for neither human, nor even animal is anywhere to be found, but instead only their traces and stand-ins: for the image of all the sleds being disgorged from the back of the VW van is itself a deliberate reversal of the traditional image of the single sled being pulled by a pack of dogs. Now the dogs are gone and a multitude of sleds stands in for them, but each sled contains an emergency survival kit — a hunk of fat, a flashlight and a roll of felt — designed for the survival of the now ontologically “homeless” human being. The human being who, today, finds himself in exile from Being, as Heidegger put it, finds himself washed ashore like Crusoe with no macrosphere to protect him, and so Beuys provides such a nomadic human with an emergency kit for survival in a post-catastrophic Age.

When the human form does turn up at all in this new cosmology, it has been pulled apart and destructured: its various astral, etheric and physical sheaths have been pulled away from each other, and Beuys illustrates one or the other of them, but never the human being himself. For example, in Grauballe Man of 1962, Beuys has substituted for the human form a cosmic process illustrating him: the work is composed of a series of concentric circular copper tubes, for just as copper conducts electricity, so the human ether body, a la Steiner, conducts spiritual forces. The actual human is nowhere to be found here in this mock grave, but only the signifier of his etheric body, an impersonal and cosmic force. The human being as human being is no longer involved, for he has been swallowed up into a larger cosmic picture.

Joseph Beuys, ‘Wooden Virgin’ 1958

This process was already clearly foreshadowed in a drawing entitled Nude from 1957, in which the body of a naked human female has blurred and blended into a landscape, becoming identical with it. Thus, in sculptural works like the 1961 Virgin (the painted version of which is shown above) and the Mountain King (shown below) of the same year, the sculpted forms become visually identical with entire landscapes: the body of the Virgin is made from a chopped up log of teak wood, while the sculpted Mountain

King represents the actual physical landscape itself (like HCE in Finnegans Wake), with the central hollow tube where his spinal column would have beeen now a metaphor for the human processes of mining and the digging of tunnels into the earth.

The human body has now, in Cosmology B, become absorbed into the cosmos, as in Eastern myth and mysticism. Cosmic forces, that is, as in Cosmology A, no longer illustrate the operations of the human body, but rather the other way round: the human body is now but a localized illustration of vast cosmic forces that have absorbed it.

This is an evolutionary cosmology, though, as it was inspired by and based upon some of Steiner’s core ideas, for Beuys’ new fascination in Cosmology B with substances such as fat and felt, copper and iron, wax and wood, are meant to be illustrative of spiritual processes of human transformation and potential. However, the problem is the same as with that of Eastern mysticism: the cosmic forces have now won out, and they have swallowed up the human being who has now become enmeshed within them as a helpless prisoner of processes that are vast and ancient, and impossible for him to harness or control.

Thus, in the great cosmology of Beuys’ middle period, the human being disappears into the processual matrix, having become its prisoner, and it is doubtful whether Beuys can ever rescue him from his precipitous fall into these abstract networks of self-organizing forces that have gobbled him up.

An Opposed Tendency

But now another tendency, or rather structural feature, of this second cosmology begins to become evident from as early as 1962, when he produced a series of sculptures called Silent Gramophones (shown below).

These are images of LP records that are sometimes coated in red paint and stuck up vertically or horizontally with, in place of a needle, an animal bone. These are examples of ruptured objects, in which the normal function of the object has not only been reterritorialized but also ruptured so that it is completely inoperative. These gramophones are silent precisely because they can no longer give forth any kind of sound at all. They are therefore illustrations of an opposed cosmological tendency in this second epoch of Beuys’ work, namely, an entropic tendency in which objects recede, break down or cease to function.

This middle period is also, of course, the great period of Beuys’ famous Actions, which first began in 1963 when he associated with the so-called Fluxus Group. These actions continued all through the 1960s and on into the mid 70s, and despite their bewildering diversity and puzzling content, they all have precisely one theme in common: communication breakdown. They are like four-dimensional realizations of his ruptured objects (indeed, Beuys’ art in its broad strokes had moved from two dimensions, with his early paintings, to three dimensions with his sculptures and to the fourth dimension of Time with his Actions).

In December of 1964, for instance, Beuys performed an Action entitled “The Chief,” in which he wrapped himself in a felt blanket and lay on the floor for nine hours croaking primeval animal sounds into a microphone that he kept inside the felt blanket with him. At either end of him lay a dead hare, and a speaker on the wall amplified his animal croakings. By way of explanation, Beuys tells us that he was trying to rupture his own species’ range of semantics in order to open up forms of communication with other animal species. But this, then, is precisely the theme of another Action, this one performed in November of 1965, entitled “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare,” [shown below] in which Beuys sat in a chair in a booth behind glass with a dead hare on his lap and whispered explanations to it of various drawings that he had hung on the walls around him. His head was covered with honey and gold leaf like a mask, and one foot was anchored with an iron sole, while the other was insulated with a felt sole. Beneath his chair lay a primitive “radio,” namely, an animal bone with electrical wire wrapped around it. The anxiety here is precisely that of opening up portals between the human and animal worlds, and between human thinking and earlier, more archaic forms of instinctual, intuitive thought.

In the February, 1967 Action entitled “Eurasian Staff Action,” Beuys performed the ritual of erecting four felt-wrapped metal pillars inside of a large room. Then he took the “Eurasian staff,” a long copper pole bent back on itself in a U-shape and used it to touch the ceiling as a means of conducting spiritual energy into the room. The square shape made by the four pillars was left open in order to receive these spiritual energies. Beuys himself was, once again, anchored by an iron sole and insulated by a felt sole.

In the famous “Coyote” Action of 1974 — which more or less wraps up this epoch of Actions — he spent a few days with a live coyote in a room in a building in New York, trying to open up portals of connection in shamanic fashion with the animal, a now forgotten mode of conversing with the animals, obscured and paved over, like Heidegger’s Being, by modern scientific – industrial rational thinking.

Thus, the theme of the Actions is always communication breakdown of one sort of another: either between the human and the animal worlds; or between and amongst Objects themselves. The famous felt-wrapped piano, for instance, (shown below) was a relic of a 1966 Action entitled “Infiltration-Homogen for grand piano, the great contemporary composer is the thalidomide child.” Felt, in the Beuysian cosmology, always signifies insulation, warmth and isolation. The piano that is completely wrapped in felt can, of course, no longer emit sound and so its traditional function is thereby ruptured. It has withdrawn away from the universe of Other Things into a private space of broken lines of communication along with all the other ruptured objects that Beuys produced in this period as examples of the Entropic counter theme of his evolutionary cosmology: the various silent gramophones, the tuning fork on a felt pad; the half-crosses made of felt (the missing half being the ruptured completion of a traditional cross), etc. etc.

The Actions feed back into his cosmology, where they reinforce the production of these felt-suffocated objects and illustrate the opposed cosmic force which gives to the cosmology of his great period all its tension: that namely between Evolution and Entropy, precisely as Teilhard de Chardin described it in his Phenomenon of Man. In Beuysian cosmology, copper, with its electricity-conducting potential, and fat, with its form-receptive potential, are the opposed double articulation of his Evolutionary theme (for whereas, according to Beuys, electricity is associated with the cold, mineralogical principle, fat is associated with the warm and organic pole); while felt, with its suffocating but insulating properties tends to be associated with his various Entropic objects, such as the felt suit that he  made which has no buttons or zippers and so cannot function properly.

In Cosmology B, then, objects either illustrate vast spiritual energies that are at work in processes of formation and transformation, such as the various copper batteries that he built in his “Fond” series; or they are objects that have broken off from all cosmologies whatsoever into their own private spaces, such as the Silent Gramophones and Felt Pianos, which illustrate a decaying universe of ruptured and fragmented lines of communication in which objects can no longer organize and gather to form a World anymore precisely because they lack the force of the necessary cosmic reciprocity (as in Kant) that would make them intercommunicate and therefore render the cosmology functional.

It is as though Beuys’ cosmology were working at cross-purposes with itself, and it is this basic conflict at the core of Cosmology B which gives his work such a fragmented, broken and semiotically bewildering array of meanings to the puzzled viewer who stands before it. It is, in other words, a cosmology struggling to be born, but which, since it cannot eject the necessary entropy to enable it to function as a dissipative structure, cannot manage to come into being and cohere into a stable world Image.

Beuys’ cosmology, then, is a damaged cosmology, one that never really emerges into full and clear view.

The Victory of the Mineralogical

In Beuysian cosmology, then, as we have said, copper is normally linked with the evolutionary forces, whereas felt tends to be associated with entropic ones. (Snowfall, a 1965 sculpture [shown below], perfectly illustrates this latter tendency, with its image of three bare tree branches suffocated by layers of felt as stand ins for snow).

But in the various “batteries” that Beuys began to produce in the latter years of this middle cosmology, such as Fond II of 1965 or Site of 1967, the two substances, and hence also, the two cosmic forces, tend to merge and interpenetrate. In Site, for instance, a flat sheet of copper is laid on the floor to represent the “site” of some unspecified future event, while it is surrounded by scraps of felt. But by the time of the great “batteries” of spiritual energy with Fond III of 1979 [shown below], the felt and the copper have been mutually interpenetrated, for this large sculpture is made of interleaved rectangles of felt and copper sheets in nine large stacks. It is a battery of spiritual energy for social transformation, a battery which grows larger with Fond IV and eventually in 1985 reaches monumental proportions with Fond VII.

In Beuys’ third and final period, which extends from about 1975 to 1985, entropic objects and tendencies are, for the most part, noticeably absent (with a few exceptions, of course, such as Plight of 1985). The Actions, during this period, have also largely ceased and given way instead to ever larger and more comprehensive installations and environments which tend to surround and engulf the viewer with a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk totality. But the absence of the entropic tendency in the art cause the brilliance of the art to lose much of its tension and as a result, Beuys’ Late Period is a typical example of the Late Period of any great artist, for it is mostly concerned with monumentalizing previous works and repeating his earlier themes.

The huge Tallow, for instance [shown above], of 1977, represents Beuys’ monumentalization of his earlier brilliant “Fat corners” from the 1960s [shown below]. The point of creating triangle-shaped corners of fat in rooms was a means of neutralizing the right-angularity of Western masculinist scientific thinking with the soft and organic contours of fat. Indeed, Beuys often began his Actions by creating such fat corners as a means of reterritorializing rectangular rooms, and rounding off their corners, as it were, to introduce more warming, organic and feminine-spiritual geometries. But Tallow is a huge sculpture made of fat that was used to fill in a mold taken from a pedestrian underpass in the city of Munster. It was, in other words, a means of extracting a tooth, as Caroline Tisdall puts it, to show its decay, in this case, the sterility and ennui of the kinds of concrete gigantism that have blighted our cities. But this is not a new point in Beuys, merely a monumental version of his fat corners.

The 1985 environment Plight [shown below] is one of the few entropic works from this later period: it is a series of rooms in which the walls have been soundproofed with huge rolls of felt while a piano stands by itself in the middle of the room.

The piano’s capacity to produce sound has therefore been ruptured by the fact that the felt will absorb it all, and so what we have is merely a monumentalized version of Beuys’ earlier brilliant felt-wrapped pianos. It makes precisely the same point as the previous scultpures.

Honey Pump at the Workplace from 1977, in which a machine connected to tubes filled with honey as stand-in for blood travel up and down a stairwell of the Museum Fridericianum, re-makes the same point as his 1960 Horns, only it substitutes its syncopated imagery for the human body instead of animal anatomy.

The gigantification of art is a tendency that is universally characteristic of decadaent periods, such as for example in the case of New Kingdom Egypt when, under Rameses II, its art underwent a scaling up to truly inhuman proportions with his various tombs. The enormous ziggurats from the time of Ur-Nammu in Mesopotamia are, of course, the largest ever built and come in at the end of that civilization as it is reaching its twilight. And the same goes for the gigantic Forums and gladiatorial arenas of the Roman Empire.

Colossification is a sign that something in the art is beginning to disappear, and so the art must insist upon itself with ever larger and more grandiose gestures in order to have any effect upon the viewer at all. The point is the same, but now it is made on a scale that is designed to intimidate the viewer by capturing him in the shadow cast by all-encompassing and totalitarian forms.

Thus, when the entropic theme largely, though not entirely, disappeared from the art of Beuys’ third period, something else went out of the art, too, for it lost much of its brilliance and inventiveness and descendend into a repetition of a fixed stock of forms. And the stark grandeur of his vast and impersonal cosmology, in which there was no longer any room for the human being as such, tended to cancel out much of its point, namely, that these forces are available to the human being to use them for personal and social transformation.

But, of course, they cannot be used when they are inaccessible and impersonal, too gigantic and cosmic to reach, and so no longer access the central warmth aspect, as Beuys would put it, at the heart of the human being. Thus, the very cold principle of the stiffening and rigidification of form that had been symbolized in many of Beuys’ earlier works — such as the brilliant bronze landscape sculpture Val of 1961 — and which he had opposed to his “warming” principles of fat and felt and wax (themselves privileged over the cold pole of his cosmic dichotomy) eventually won the field in his art, which, in the end, petrified and stiffened up, while the warmth principle faded out altogether.

One of his final environments, The End of the Twentieth Century of 1985 [below], says it all: a museum room filled with a pile of overturned and featureless basalt blocks.

The complete triumph of the stiffened mineralogical principle.

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9th September 2012

On Planetary Scale Disasters

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The new millenium has brought with it new disasters of unprecedented scale and scope. These disasters have not only grown larger than they were in Neomodernity, but they are now coterminous with the sphere of the entire globe. There is nowhere where disaster is not. The days of peering safely over the fence at the catastrophes which have befallen the misfortunate Other are over with, for no matter who we are, or where we find ourselves on the map — First World or Third World no longer makes any difference since, as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, these two worlds have now become tightly intermeshed — disaster, sooner or later, is going to find us.

The third and final part of this book, then, proceeds to analyze a series of disasters of planetary scale: the September 11 terrorist attacks upon New York City; the devastations wrought by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans; the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China; an obscure and little known disaster that took place in the Exosphere above the earth in 2009, when two orbiting satellites, for the first time ever, crashed into each other; the BP oil spill; and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima meltdown.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks, though they were localized to New York and Washington, D.C., were nonetheless global precisely because they were inflicted by a global terrorist network, an example of what Arjun Appadurai has termed diasporic public spheres. These are groups of people living in exile from their home states who are able, nonetheless, to connect with each other via the use of globalized technologies like cell phones and the Internet. Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups affiliated with it, such as the Islamic Group or al-Jihad, represent a new kind of enemy to the nation state, one that is diffuse, non-localized and stateless. As a result, it is a near impossibility to eradicate such social formations brought into being by global technologies, for they are like cancer in the sense that in order to get rid of them, you would have to attack the entire global system, which would have to be shut down and unplugged. At that point, they would cease to exist, but so, unfortunately, would everything else. Al-Qaeda and groups like them compose the shadow side of globalization, for with global technology comes global terrorism.

The attacks themselves — and those that followed in Madrid and Britain in the subsequent years — are also planetary in another sense, one specified by Ulrich Beck, in which he pointed out that such attacks demonstrate that there is no longer any safe place anywhere on the planet that is not under threat by terrorist attack. The apparent randomness of the attacks points up the fact that the entire planet is now their target, for there is no longer a battlefield of any sort. In traditional wars, the front was where the tanks were, but today there is no front precisely because the front is right where you and I are standing. Anyone, anywhere could be hit: that subway, this bus, that building over there, this train station over here. No place is safe, and the entire planet, therefore, is now, for the first time, under military threat (before that, nuclear threat was planetary, too, but not a particularly credible one).

This, of course, thrusts the contemporary human being into a new existential situation in the world in which, far worse than Heidegger’s Angst, the individual as a member of a molar population now finds himself a potential target. We are all targets today. The disintegration of the polarity of battlefield vs. domus — together with so many other such traditional philosophical polarities as nature vs. culture, inside vs. outside — is now upon us.

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, another apparently localized catastrophe, the “natural” catastrophe of a hurricane that nearly wiped out an entire metropolis, we find ourselves facing the results of another planetary catastrophe, in this case, that of global warming. As many of our climate scientists have demonstrated, 2005 was the hottest year on record, with a record number of storms. A warmed planet means warming oceans, and that means more energy in the atmosphere. Global warming is an ongoing planetary catastrophe that is happening, in slow motion, all around us right this very moment. As you read these words, CO2 levels continue to rise; Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets continue to melt; and sea levels continue to elevate. In one hundred years, most climate scientists are now saying, we will be living in a very different, indeed, scarcely recognizable, world.

With the 2008 earthquake that took place in the Sichuan Province of China, we are dealing with the world’s first man-made earthquake (or at least, the first that we know of). As the result of the pressure and weight of the reservoir at Zipingpu Dam, which sits right on a fault line, the tectonic plates were disrupted and loosed enormous amounts of energy in the form of a 7.9 earthquake. This, too, is a global problem, since massive industrial engineering projects have been built everywhere on the planet, and it is within the bounds of possibility that such projects are somehow destabilizing the lithosphere beneath our feet. Geologists have suggested recently that earthquakes are on the rise and getting bigger, and more of them may be man-made than we care to want to realize. Our technologies have taken on a truly vast, gargantuan nature, and now they seem to be disrupting the very cosmic forces that hold the planet together.

The 2009 crash of two orbiting satellites in the Exosphere above the earth is the first dromospheric accident to take place in orbit. The implications of this accident, as the essay explores, are that the entire planet is now surrounded by a thermo- and exospheric envelope of crashes and collisions which, according to the Kessler Syndrome, are waiting to unfold over the next few decades.

So, consistent with the planetary scale of our industrial undertakings, the accidents and disasters that such projects inevitably bring along with them have now been scaled up in magnitude to the size of the entire planet. Indeed, the value of this technological experiment undertaken by Western civilization has never seemed to be more in question than it is now.

In attempting to surround himself with a technospheric exoskeleton in order to compensate for the loss of the ancient planetary spheres that once protected him from the impact of “too much reality,” the human being has now walled himself inside of a metallic shell in which catastrophes have become a daily occurrence. Indeed, the belt of satellites in the Thermosphere has now become the modern equivalent of the Roman limes, that ancient wall stretching across the middle of Europe that demarcated the civilized world of the Romans from the lawless and chaotic wilderness of the German barbarians. It is only in the Exosphere above and beyond the satellized Thermosphere where today the artifacts of human technological civilization begin to thin out and shade off into the chaotic wildernesses of outer space.

And now, the option of escape from this techno-shell has vanished, for there is no longer any such thing as an “outside” of civilization to escape to. In the cosmologies of the ancient Gnostics, the cosmos was a sort of prison constructed by evil cosmic architects known as Archons, who built it as a machine for trapping and confining human souls into physical bodies. The only way out of such confinement was to attain, through gnosis, an escape of the soul from the body, which could then ascend out beyond the whirling spheres governed by the Archons to the cosmic Plenum that lay beyond them. Today, such an outside would exist only somewhere beyond the pale above the Exosphere, but then, that is a realm that is inherently hostile to biological life and no place for man to build space rafts for himself as substitute vehicles of ascension with which to escape from a decimated earth and its techno-polluted solar system.

Like it or not, the earth is an orb upon which we find ourselves stranded for the forseeable future.

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9th August 2012

From “The Age of Catastrophe”: An Excerpt

The Age of Catastrophe: Disaster and Humanity in Modern Times

A Few Words on a Civilization’s Loss of Command Over its Environment

by John David Ebert

One of the constitutive aspects of Martin Heidegger’s analysis of the worldhood of the world — of its nature as a world — is that the objects around us making up our daily lives create a kind of closed referential totality such that we scarcely notice them. That is, the objects that surround and comprise the everydayness of our world have a tendency to withdraw from us and blend in to the world which they compose. They only stand out when they break down, become unusable or otherwise damaged. At that point, the object becomes conspicuous — Heidegger’s example of the broken hammer has become proverbial — and stands forth into our awareness as a problem. The object no longer blends in but has now shifted into a theoretical mode in which it has become a problem for the human intellect to solve.

But as the following chapters should, if I have done my job right, make abundantly clear, we are now surrounded, everywhere we look, by broken technological artifacts that have stood forth from the background of global consumer society and made themselves conspicuous through the increasingly ubiquitous phenomena of accidents and catastrophes. Technology as a whole, that is to say, has now come into question as the result of this pile-up of broken down machines that have come crashing forth from out of the background of our awareness and into the field of our concern. Technology, as was once the case during, say, the nineteenth century, no longer forms an unnoticed and therefore subliminal world-round inside which we are contained, but now stands forth into the clearing of our mentality as something that has become a problem to be solved, and therefore, impossible to ignore. The entire technological landscape has now shifted into the mode of Heidegger’s broken hammer, and so it must now be theorized about as a problem.

Apparently, the decade of the 1930s was the point at which this took place, for it wasn’t until then that books written about technology in the abstract began to appear, beginning with Oswald Spengler’s Man and Technics in 1931 and Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization in 1934. Heidegger’s famous essay on “The Question Concerning Technology” was first delivered in its earliest form as one of his Bremen Lectures of 1949, while Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride soon followed in 1951. Jacques Ellul’s Technological Society, furthermore, appeared in its original French version in 1954, while the later books of McLuhan, such as Understanding Media, soon followed.

Once any subject — and in this case, we are concerned with technology — has shifted into the mode of discussion, worry and theory, you can be sure that that subject is being noticed precisely because it has become a problem.

It was Arnold Toynbee, furthermore, who, in his monumental A Study of History, pointed out back in the 1930s that one of the conspicuous signs of a disintegrating society is a slow, gradual loss of command of its ability to control its environment. A decreasing technical and artistic ability, he insisted, was one of the symptoms — though not the cause — of the breakdown of a civilization.

The great civilizations have each had their own particular stylistic bias; that is, like human individuals, they all did one thing better than the others. For the Egyptians, this was their elaborate articulation of the rituals and technologies associated with the Afterlife; for the Greeks, it was a keen aesthetic sensibility; for the Hindus, a superior religious development; for the Mesopotamians, an advanced hydraulic civilization based upon an extremely complex irrigation system; and for the West, it has been a machinic specialization evident from as early as the stirrups and iron horseshoes of the fifth century.

Consistent with this logic, then, a breakdown in one or the other of these areas of expertise in their respective civilizations should be an unfailing marker that the society in question had reached the limits of its mortality, and was beginning to enter the initial stages of its senescence. And indeed, when one surveys the evidence, this does appear to be the case.

In ancient Egypt, for instance, a gradual loss of competence in the technical abilities attending the mortuary practices of its ancient cults becomes evident around the period of the 22nd Dynasty, in which the elaborate imagery associated with tomb decoration begins to disappear. Coffins become shoddier and shoddier from this point on and by the 25th Dynasty, the famous canopic jars were artistically inferior as well.

It was the great Near Eastern scholar Thorkild Jacobsen, furthermore, who noticed that the shift in Mesopotamia from the homeland of the Sumerians in the south near the Persian Gulf, to the north with the coming of the Babylonians, and then even further north with the Assyrians, paralleled a gradual depletion and exhaustion of arable soils along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Jacobsen suspected that this shift was not accidental but mapped out the slow, inevitable salinization of the soils due to the failing Mesopotamian irrigation system. The shifting of each Mesopotamian kingdom further and further north was symptomatic of its southern neighbors’ gradual loss of command over their land, as their canals silted up, and their soils became ruined by salt.

In ancient India, a gradual loss of command over the religious sphere begins to become evident from about the twelfth century on, where a certain sugary sweetness appears first in Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda and then with the rise and spread of the sentimentality of the bhakti cults with their Krishna avatars and circling gopis. The sophistication of yoga and philosophy slowly gave way to the kitsch of folk art and popular piety.

And in Classical civilization, as is well known, the decline in Greek sculpture and statuary that began to set in from the Hellenistic period was tantamount to the rise of melodrama, realism and bombast — first evident in the “Wagnerian” art of Pergamene — which became slowly rigidified and calcined until, with the severe and imposing Roman portrait busts, this great art came to its end.

But these, of course, are only some of the most conspicuous examples of the phenomenon. We need only think of a few others — the loss of the Hinayana Buddhist control over the great irrigation tanks on the island of Ceylon; the loss of the ability of the Polynesians of Easter Island to create their stone statues, which had become legend already by the time of Captain Cook’s arrival there in the eighteenth century; or the ghostly, dust-blown ruins of desert oasis cities like Petra and Palmyra — in order to remind ourselves that the phenomenon is not at all a rare one, for every civilization is mortal and all eventually lose their ability to shape and command Form in the effort to reverse Entropy into higher, more complex dissipative structures.

And this is no less so in the case of our modern Western civilization, as the following catalogue of disasters reveals. Indeed, the increasing banality of disaster, its overwhelming everydayness, points to the fact that the West is slowly losing its grip over its environment, namely, its ability to command Nature by manipulating its forces with machines and technological apparatuses. It was precisely this ability — first evident in the windmills, waterwheels, and mechanical clocks of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries — that marked the emergence of Western civilization as a unique society entering upon the stage of world history with a style of unprecedented technological mastery over Nature. An ever increasing abundance of catastrophes, however — whether defined as “technological” or “natural” — means that more and more turbulence is building up in the system of the West’s great global megamachine, and as any student of chaos theory knows, turbulence can only increase so much before the system snaps into a phase change governed by an altogether different systemic attractor.

Everywhere we look nowadays, upon the distant horizons — like those tiny burning villages and shattered boats and windmills in the dim backgrounds of the paintings of Bosch and Brueghel — planes are falling, cars are crashing and buildings are crumbling, their foundations washed away into the sea by the ever-swelling tides and tsunamis brought forth by rising sea levels and global earthquakes. It would appear that we are entering into the early stages of a mortal illness that is spreading throughout the West and is revealing itself through the pile up of disasters as the West’s gradual loss of command over its own particular environment, namely, the orb of the earth itself.

But, after all, the great cavalcade of machines cannot continue to unfold forever. Sooner or later, the sheer abundance and profusion of them is bound to generate so much entropy in the environment that it will cause far more problems for us than the machines will actually solve.

Once, long ago, at the dawning of Western civilization, its creaking windmills and chiming clocks shone with a kind of divine aura to the Gothic monks who brought them into being as revelations of a whole new age, a Third Age, that is, of the Holy Spirit — as articulated by Joachim of Floris — during which the Spirit would descend to earth and reveal a New macro-order of world history to those initiated into the secrets of the Machine and its inner workings.

But now, the Machine has become more of a source of fear and apprehension than a revelation of the interior workings of the mind of God. It has shifted its ontological status from a mechanization of the Holy Spirit to a threatening mechanical demon sent up from Hell — like those homocidal robots in the Terminator movies — to harry and hound the human being to the edges of his Final Days.

We never know, anymore, when the elevator we are riding in is going to stop; or the balcony we are leaning on to look over the atrium of some hotel is going to give way; or whether the roof of the stage at a rock concert is going to come down on our heads. Technology, these days, can no longer be trusted.

We simply never know when it is going to turn against us, for it is becoming increasingly more and more expected that it will fail, give out, and bite back when we least expect it to.

Thus, the arc of Western culture, long past its noon, and long since having diverged with the ever rising arc of technology which surpassed it long ago, is coming, lightly, to rest upon the earth, while somewhere, not too far ahead of it, the arc of technology, too, is now coming down from the heavens like a falling satellite whose orbit is decaying as it comes crashing toward the earth.

Who knows where the pieces will land?

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24th July 2012

On Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Quest for a New Semiotic Machine

by John David Ebert

Apparatuses of Semiotic Capture

The central anxiety of Basquiat’s art — and it is an anxiety that runs through every single painting he ever did — is the absence of an apparatus of semiotic capture. In an age of semiotic overload when all the signifiers have been torn free from the previous apparatuses that once captured and bound them into ordered systems of meaning and significance (i.e. Heidegger’s various epochs of Being; Sloterdijk’s macrospheres, etc.), the precise problem now for the artist who finds himself on the outside of Everything is to find and construct new apparatuses that will capture and collect the signifiers, assigning them new places of fixity and meaning, thus neutralizing the dangers of information overload (which tends to have a hollowing effect on the human subject). Read the rest of this entry »

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