I read Carol Vogel’s piece about the new Damien Hirst exhibit in the NYT today, and found it interesting in a repulsive way. Just to check, I read a number of reviews and previews of art openings in the 60s and 70s in the New Yorker, and I did not find one that even mentioned the price of the pieces. Vogel’s whole article is devoted to the price of Hirst’s work. For good reason. The work, of course, is absolute shit. One dimentional one offs which don’t deserve a second of eyetime. But the prices – ah, the prices are in a sense sublime. Unfortunately, the article was illustrated with pictures of Hirst’s pieces, instead of pictures of checks, piles of Euros, dollars. The 750 thousand Euros that one of his pieces apparently sod for is a complex object, with many dimensions of dread and bloodshed, and nicely printed. The art world of which Hirst is a sort of master example no longer produces anything as interesting as the prices that are paid for the pieces circulating within it. I think that eventually, the message, which has been hammered home with a vengeance over the past twenty years, will finally achieve an objective correlative in some art magazine that only illustrates the prices of the pieces.
Why not eliminate the middleman? Burn the fucking Hirst shit. Just trade 750 thou for, say, 1 million. Finally, we would achieve the full circle of the collapse of art in our time.
Thursday, April 06, 2017
There’s a long dispute in the philosophy of science about the ontological status of probability.
The dispute goes back to the founder of modern probability theory, Laplace. Laplace – with some help from the man who edited a posthumous paper by Bayes outlining one way of thinking about narrowing down probabilities – came up with equations to help us through the jungle of chance. There’s a good book by Sharon McGregor on the subject. McGregor, in keeping with the current trend, is a Bayesian.
Laplace, famously, had no place in his hypotheses for God. But he did have a place for what one might call a God Point. From the God Point, held, Laplace imagined, by a genius calculator, the universe would be revealed in its certainty. For this viewpoint, there would be no probabilities. Where we see, for instance, a raindrop, which splashes on our nose, the divine calculator would see the entire course of causes from which that raindrop issued. It would see the water evaporating from the surface of the earth, condensing into a cloud, and at some point of critical mass falling, once again to the earth, perhaps crashing into a mingling with other drops, until finally your nose is wet. And it would see all this the way we, for instance, see a tree – all as one thing, all as a certainty.
Underneath this vision is the idea that probability derives from a radical lack of knowledge. Lack of knowledge can sound, here, like a very subjective thing, but it isn’t necessarily so. We can model it mechanically. It is not subjective in the way of a state like: what it is like to be a bat.
However, as Mcgregor points out, for the positivists of the 19th century, and for the first generation of physicists who theorized quantum mechanics, there was something sneaky about this way of thinking about probability. Ed Jaynes puts it like this: “are probability statements of quantum mechanics expressions of empirically verifiable laws of physics,[which would mean that they are out there, in the universe the good Lord is looking at] or merely expressions of our incomplete ability to predict, whether due to a defect in the theory or to incomplete initial information [in which case Laplace’s god is in his place and all is right with the world].
I mention this controversy as an analogy to the case for silent films that Fondane wants to make. For, just as the early generation of quantum physicists and Machian positivists like Richard von Mises placed indeterminacy out there as a constraint on frequency, so, too, does Fondane place silence out there as a fundamental construction principle of film. Fondane is saying that sound is not an act of creative destruction, but instead destroys something essential about film.
Fondane builds up to this point by constructing a history of film that situates its beginnings in a sort of popular anarchy, something happening on the margins.
“The silent art is of low birth the child of business men without business, of employee without employment, of ignorant adventureres, of apprentice photographers. At no time would these people have consented to work for any other purpose than to expand the means, nourish the image making capacity, fortify the singular virtues of the power of a machine whose activity was as far as possible from what one might want to call, retrospectively, “art”.
This is an argument not so much from unintended consequences but, rather, from the surrealist principle that Fondane puts at the center of his essay: the ‘malentendu’. The misunderstanding or misprision of things and signs is, in Fondane’s work, a standing for the surrealist fascination with chance juxtaposition, with the principle of association gone wild. It is the surrealist sublime: the famous umbrella encountering a sewing machine on an ironing board. Exactly this kind of thing, on a mass scale, happens when silence and the moving image meet each other.
Wednesday, April 05, 2017
The GOP has decided to blow up the filibuster, but just this once. Standard rightwing talk - that's how the supremes elevated the knownothing from Texas into the white house in a nice little coup, noting that their decision should never ever serve as a precedent for any other suit - an absurd clause that marked the decision as coming from a country club junta. In many ways, I think the 2000 decision marks a symbolic decision that America has not gotten over. A sort of last kick against the corpse of democracy. But the GOP is, I think, unleashing an ultimately benevolent monster. After all, the bad parts of Obamacare are there precisely in order to reach the 60 senator mark. Abolishing the 60 senator mark means that legislation only needs 51 senators. In a senate composed of reactionaries, this means that a lot of shit will be coming our way. But the only way that the GOP will be reduced to the minority status it deserves is if GOP voters get full in the face what they voted for. Already, polls show Trump's support in rural areas, the ones that voted for him, has collapsed - due to the fact that the ACHA that he supports is like a bomb dropped on their communities. The filibuster has the effect of both moderating conservative viciousness and limiting liberal programs - in other words, of making conservatism acceptable and compromising liberalism so that its obvious appeal is muted. The filibuster, like much of the American apparatus of governance, was constructed to make white male property holders supreme. The plutocracy has nothing really to fear from the way checks and balances result in checks for them and balances for the rest of us. (Not of course that the plutocracy realizes this. The insane fear experienced by billionaires wanting to save their spare millions from the taxman is proof that marginal utilitarianism goes against human feeling in the same way that quantum mechanics seems to defy common sense.) Part of why I am optimistic that a Dem it yourself movement can radically transform the Dem party is that the shell shocked response to what the Reps are doing when they have ample space to do it has more power than any of the tricks and sleights of the professional "campaign consultant" class. The Dem establishment model is: nudgery in the past, nudgery in the present, nudgery forever. This is founded on the pragmatic observation that the Congress is run so that no progressive bill can really make it through. This excuse is about to be bulldozed. Interesting times ahead.
La cinéma parlant est là pour remplacer le film muet, et toutes nos protestation ne feraient rien contre. – Benjamin Fondane, 1930.
As we are carried forward in great lunging steps by money and technology, we are assured on all sides thaat this is what we want. A magical vocabulary has sprung up to explain it all to us, where the abracadabra is “disruption” or “creative destruction” or the old standby, “progress’. That the destruction could be vast and negative – destructive destruction – doesn’t enter the picture. Nobody, in the late nineteenth century, voted to obliterate the night sky. It just happened, electrical lights just happened, it was all very exciting. There was no discussion of the fact that ever since we were lemurs on the floor of the jungle, we have always had the night sky. It was simply taken away, and replaced with a new paler version. That this act might have untold consequences on our collective circadian rhythm wasn’t even on the ledger, under costs. It just happened.
It is an odd characteristic of the age of democracy and progress that populations have much less choice about the vaster changes in their environment. The slaves of the Romans and Greeks, in their misery, had a freedom they did not know about: the freedom to live in the same environment they were born into, and their parents before them. They were all the more vulnerable to disease and the lot, you’ll say. And you’ll be right! Which only goes to show that costs and benefits are both on the ledger. The freedom I am talking about was assumed into the industrial age. In fact, so deeply assumed that we have no word for it. Freedom to retain our paradigm circumstances? We can only gesture towards it in crippled phrases. And even those will touch on a mass incomprehension, since, though our senses and memories know something is happening here, we don’t know what it is.
However, ahem, to turn from these vast panoramas to my miniature, the purpose of this little ditty: creative destruction in the film industry. About 1930, the silents were replaced by the talkies. This in retrospect has been presented as a kind of repair. Silent films were defective, and Vitaphone repaired them. It is as if movies were born deaf, and an operation gave them hearing.
But there were protests, among which I want to signal Benjamin Fondane’s as one of the strongest and most logical – a protest that puts its finger on the larger issue of the structure that was being ‘replaced’. This is all the more interesting because Fondane has become a cult figure for a very small cult, one of those twentieth century writers that exist on the margins of our consciousness, a ghost of sorts, who lights a fire in certain readers.
The cult goes back, in part, to his end. He belongs among the murdered. When he was arrested by the Nazis, Jean Paulhan, the influential intellectual wheeler dealer, somehow got him a reprieve. But Fondane refused it, because it didn’t include his sister. Instead, he went with her to Auschwitz and perished. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Not a verset we are callled upon to take literally, we all think.
Fondane came from Romania to France in the 20s, and he made films. He made films up to 1936 – as per this Youtube bit, he made an absurdist film in Argentina under the patronage of Victoria Ocampo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9oFygwg52DY There seems to have been a lovely bit with a man looking like Paul Valery in a ballerina tutu. The whole thing, a sort of mixture, it seems, of Bunuel and the Marx Brothers, never made it past the producer’s ire, who obviously did not sense the hunger in the Argentine masses for a hilarious send up of Paul Valery; and the complete film has been lost.
Fondane is better known to posterity for his essays and his poems. The lament for the end of the silents was published in Bifur in 1930: From Silent to Talking: greatness and decadence of cinema (Grandeur et decadence has a lilt in French more like the English Decline and fall). It is a big essay, and I’m just rollin up my sleeves here. Gonna work on it in a future post.