Collected for Critical Animals at This Is Not Art 2014.
This is a large collection of multimedia information about 'ordinary things', focusing in particular rubber tires, chocolate and mobile phones. It is an investigation into the sources and background of these things and associations to restore meaning to them in broader contexts. As a 'reading' of ordinary things it is also a 'writing'. This information is arranged in sequences that tell stories revealing or explain things about ordinary life - how and why we live as we do.
This collection deals with the anxiety that with modernity comes a loss of meaning, history and spirit from everyday objects. It shows that meaning, history and spirit is still there but is merely not signified on the surface, at face value. It only takes a little research, a little activity rather than passive, automatic use, to restore that meaning, history and spirit to things.
This activity of 'reading' things can be revelatory, as demonstrated in these examples of rubber tires, chocolate and phones. The ordinary world becomes again imbued with stories, interesting, enjoyable and at times gravely serious.
Researching the sources of things can reveal the causes and contingency of our behaviour and obligations, the extent to which we are controlled by things in our daily lives, our situation within global control systems and to what extent we might be able to have an affect within them, as well as the effects, often with far reaching ethical implications, that mundane interactions with objects can have on others.
This collection can be read in various ways, with commentary possible on a variety of topics and themes. Stories are presented through sampling and mixing source material, rather than authorial analytic commentary or summary. The semantic components are larger than letters, morphemes, words, sentences, but are quotes, images, films, sounds from people, artists, documentors, journalists, musicians etc which comprise a lexicon for arrangement that produces meaning.
This arrangement is open to random re-arrangement with the 'shuffle' button, to open the possible for surprise unintentional meaning, potentially revealing 'unknown unknowns', further de-automating these ordinary things. Some examples of how these arrangements create meaning, cause questions and 'give the lie' (hence 'naked lunches') include:
- Researching ordinary things we depend on, scratching beneath their surface just a little, is a means of finding out what we were ignorant of, what we had assumed unknowingly. The results are interesting, as in the case of the textual history of the Popul Vuh erased from the meaning of rubber, and Luba history and writing systems. The results have ethical implications and implications for our own agency (we can't control our actions or the effects of our actions without information on how we are a effected and what effects we have).
- We are in a 'supercybernetic' system where interactions at a micro scale (such as driving to work, or checking my mortgage repayments) have controlling affects on us and others at a great distance. This distance and the erasure of information resulting from that distance leads to potentially unintended consequences. It is possible to try to re-establish those connections, which are necessarily ethical, through our interactions with things. Japanese immigration to Brazil is an example of how we might be unwitting to large scale machinations that cause our daily and life long choices. Dependance on coltan and rubber is an example of ignorance of distant ethical affects.
- These supersystems involve feedback loops: access to commodities motivate wars that depend on commodities to wage them successfully (eg: invasion of rubber producing region of British Malaysia by Japan, on bicycles, at the beginning of WWII).
- History repeats: The material demonstrates that events around slavery, activism and industry response in the chocolate industry repeated at an interval of 100 years.
- History echoes in the present, but doesn't exactly repeat: International exploitation of Rubber, historically and Coltan contemporally in the Congo region both demonstrate the far reaching affects of technological change leading to changes in demand for commodities leading to atrocities. The small scale daily interactions of people with ordinary things have far reaching affects of which they have little awareness. These general similarities play out differently in the two related cases of rubber and coltan.
- Even when the myth of mutual benefit from free market trade is demonstrated to be false (as with the international slave trade and atrocities repeatedly associated with commodity exploitation), belief in that myth is retained. This is a myth that goes back centuries to the origins of the idea of a 'commonwealth of nations' and remains unchanged in economics textbooks today. In the case of Morel, we see that when the myth not being fulfilled is the spur and justification of outrage and motivates charitable activism. It is not that the myth is seen to be false. It is seen as an injustice that the myth is not being fulfilled. Morel doesn't argue that the myth is false - when it turns out that trade isn't naturally fair, he argues that trade should be fair. We see how ideology that is taught as theoretical fact, a 'law of economics', becomes a moral imperative, a corruption that must be corrected, when it turns out to be false.
- Debt is the principle means of governing bodies under modernity, which can be understood as a transition to mundane labour, money, debt and dependance on distantly produced objects, rather than other forms of social organisation such as slavery, storied ritual, independant farming and cottage industry. The harvesting of rubber due to debt at the level of poorest of the poor all the way up to nations (Woodroffe) is an interesting case study. At the macro scale, debt is still a major factor in the subjugation and heirarchy of nations. At the microscale, this transition to modernity is still played out in the modern home today, as we teach our children to do chores in return for pocket money to get desirable posessions.
- Social media killed postmodern aesthetic ideals by realising them. This means artistic work no longer need to harmonise with it's digital or online form, it can simply be a work, just as a novel doesn't need to be about pages in a book. The digital media has become background.
This project attempts not to argue a case, but as 'ethical writing' to avoid assumptions, to acknowledge complexity and subjectivity. This is acheived in several ways, eg:
- by allowing the research to be broad and associative, rather than focused and limited so that information is not excluded. While (Because) it is never complete it recognises the potentially endless path of research.
- by presenting multiple views from multiple fields (music clips, internet posts, historic artefacts, news, literature, face to face interviews) and multiple possible interpretations (was Queen Nzinga a blood thirsty warlord, or a noble defender of her nation against bloodthirsty colonisers, or both) rather than conducting an analysis and drawing a conclusion.
- by 'giving the lie'. For each point of view a contrasting point of view is presented to avoid a sense of closure, of things having been figured out or decided finally. If someone blames wars in the East of DRC on a US-Rwanda alliance, what do wikileaks cables say about it? What does the contemporary equivalent of a colonial administrator say about it? Is DRC really all about child slavery and child soldiers - what does a Kinshasa Facebook debate on the 'big issues' look like? What do child soldiers say about their situation? Can child soldiering be blamed on colonisers or is it an indigenous phenomenon? If more people died in the DRC war than in any other since WWII why don't we all know about it? Did 5 million really die, or is it only 1 million, and if so, isn't it equally as disturbing to say, 'give or take 4 million people died'?
The focus on ordinary 'background' objects may, at face value, make this appear closely related to Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), but there are many points on which it differs to OOO. Like OOO it aims to move on from pomo and post structuralism, but it is drawn largely from post structuralism - the original premise, to 'read' ordinary things is distinctly post structuralist in treating the world as text. It moves in an ethical (specifically a view that reconciles Levinas with Derrida) or 'inter-subjective' direction, rather than towards speculating on objects and realism. This material none the less has an affinity with Morton, particularly in terms of his 'hyperobjects' which are similar to what I'd call supercyborgs - those systems larger than ourselves that we can only interact with, and generally only percieve at a local level, and which are beyond any individual or organisational control. This work particularly focuses on socio-political-economic-information-technological systems.
OOO (especially Harman) focuses on 'background' and how objects emerge from assumptions into our consciousness when they break, in the Heideggerian sense. This work includes that as a premise but focuses also on the opposite movement, that of cybernetics - where we learn to interact with the world, embodied within it, progressively 'automating' it into the background, such that intentional 'de-automation', a purposefully Heideggerian breakage, is necessary to recognise what we have come to assume through learning (automation) and habitual use. In daily technological interactions (simply: interacting with things, using) these cybernetic connections aren't simply enhancements of our abilities and agency but, within a supercyborg, equally constrain and control us, from minor interactionos to major life decisions and for our whole life. (eg: We learn to drive and no longer think about driving. We drive to work and no longer think of that. The number on my bank's website signifying my mortage debt is a control signal for me to drive to work. Why? Why do I believe the number on my bank balance? How did it come to this? What does it mean? What are the implications of driving to work each day? What are the dependencies? What causes effect me? What effects am I causing? What and how much control can I have in this situation?)
Since my work was conducted without an awareness of OOO, but coincidentally turned out to have some affinities, there's many points of both similarity and difference.
Manufactured things are experienced as lacking a soul or spirit and as lacking humanity. Walter Benjamin describes what is lost as an 'aura', an aura that signified in hand made things, through their flaws that signify simply an individual hand that made them, belonging to an individual person, or the skill of an individual evident in skillfully crafted things, or that we are likely to personally know the person who made something were it is made and traded locally, or at least recognise the region of manufacture, all being self-evident, explicity, at 'face value' in hand made products. Part of this aura is rarity, skill, time, effort, individual human thinking and working on what we use. It may also be the cultural traditions and mythologies that go into the object and/or it's decorations or the objects context in a mythic system. Gropius suggests this lack of spirit can be filled by the artist/designer "The artist is capable of giving the lifeless machine-made product a soul. His involvement is not a luxury, but must become an essential part, integral to the system of modern industry."[Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Koeln, 2014] If Marx and Taussig talk about fetishisation and fetishisation of debt (Taussig), then this is a nostalgia for fetishisation, where a (human) spirit, is embodied in the thing that signifies it as it's origin. Or perhaps it is just that until mechanisation removes the spirit, it is not a great concern, but once manufactured items prevail and become normal rather than prestige items, then hand made objects become fetishes for (human) spirit. (hence the popularity of Sunday markets in cities of modernised societies where a premium is charged for organically grown vegetables and hand made hand bags, and artefacts and foods that represent 'other' or 'ethnic' cultures were objects remain hand made - it is important that this distinction is along the lines of 'modernised' not 'empowered white ethnicity' v. 'objectified other ethnicity' - modernised people of any culture/ethnicity go through a similar nostalgia, played out with varying nuances according to the local history of modernisation, tradition and politics etc).
This 'soul' is the story of their origin, the objects history. The flaws, blemishes, markes of a hand made object signify that someone made it, or who made it. There may be a knowledge of who specifically made it because you obtained it from them directly. Objects given to us by some person have a greater 'aura' because of that story around them. If an object has cultural significance it is because of the stories of that culture associated with it.
It is not that there is no story nor people associated with manufactured objects. It is merely that the manufacturing processes with their focus on standardisation and precision and branding erase these stories. The stories are not signified in or on the objects at face value. ('Branding', advertising and marketing attempts to attach another story to them, intend to 'manufacture' consumers of the product, which is the other half of the manufacturing loop: the brand has been around since 1805 so feel nostalgic, the brand of shoes is worn by such and such a sports star etc etc, we're all familiar with that). The stories exist in the world but have merely been detached from the objects. Because of this, active research of things is required to restore stories to things. The stories not only make things more meaningful and can cause us to appreciate simple acts more (a spoon or bowl might cause us to contemplate Nahuatl or Neruda's poetry over breakfast), but in some cases can change people's lives (as is the case of people becoming aware of the sources of rubber, chocolate and mobile phones). This is not a simply a case of charitable works but one of maximising agency and of subjectifying rather than objectifying. In subjectifying it is a matter of recognising that there is someone, somewhere a particular individual involved in this object, a person who sleeps, eats and thinks about stuff, who might go home to a family, or might be on their own, who has their own personal agendas, who, like ourselves is making do in circumstances which may be better or worse and different to our own, who might argue or agree with us on various points if we met them, a person we could potentially meet and importantly who's life is affected by ourselves, and whose life affects our own (it is not simply a matter of there being maybe 1 or 5 million people, give or take 4 million who may or may not have died, etc). If a person doesn't know where rubber comes from then their consumption of rubber can cause things that they would not choose to happen. (If you don't know what's in your pie, how can you avoid eating people?) By understanding our interactions with things and the long chains of cause and effect in the global system we can better *control* those causes to achieve the effects we desire. Without information about these causes and effects and without understanding the functioning of the system, we lose all agency, or 'freedom'.
This research is not limited. Starting with rubber tires, it is open to all that leads to, rather than be constrained to a coherant narrative related directly to tires. It leads then to King Leopold IIs Congo Free State, to Coltan and the ongoing war in DRC, to King Garcia II of Kongo, to Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and the Portuguese, Dutch and Brazilian conflicts in the 17th century, to the long history of child soldiers in the region, to Andrew Battel's anecdotes, to Woyo proverb lids, Nkisi fetishes and Luba history writing traditions, to Japan, to Japanese immigration to Brazil, to Woodroffe, to Popul Vuh, to Meiji, to silk, to sustaining traditional poetics in modernity, etc. When we read traditional stories of the present day DRC it is difficult not to see firstly, the intent to percieve stories that conform to the folk tale format used in romantic nation building through indigenous stories, like Grimm's Fairy Tales, in Europe, and secondly a strained effort to put stories into those forms. It is difficult to see, in anthropological texts and collections of myths and folktales, what of a story in a book was uttered as a joke, what as high literature, what as a story for children and what as a profound mystical belief. This is one reason it is important to avoid constraints of a predetermined form. Also, one reason that the war in DRC was so under reported is because it doesn't conform to an easy to relate narrative structure. It is a misrepresentation to abstract from the situation, a story that is palatable to expectations. It is important to represent multiplicity, digression and divergence, in a situation that is complicated, involving the countless points of view of millions of people. It is impossible to fairly represent everyone, and attempting to do so would be doomed to failure. It can easily be seen as yet another colonialism. It remains important to represent *that* there is a multiplicity and to *refer* to it, rather than attempt to make it digestible.
Social media killed the Postmodern aesthetic ideal
There was once a dream, a postmodern dream, of an artform that fulfilled a set of postmodern ideals - it would be multiauthored by readers, it would be multimedia, pop culture, ironic, decentered, networked, unfixed, changing, fully referenced, hyperlinked, cybernetic. Social media, has long fit all these descriptions. When an ideal is realised, reproduced, it is no longer an ideal, it is real. That dream is dead.
The way things are presented here includes some features of that already realised ideal, it is now trivial that it's a collection of multimedia samples online and so on. What is important then is what is done with these now familiar, expected, assumed, automated techniques (just as, once photography has been invented, it's not important that you can take a photo, it's what you photograph and the way you photograph it, or once TV is invented it not so important to watch TV, but what to watch on TV, which can be a tele movie of some old thing like Les Miserables).
'Digital Humanities' changes the way research can be presented. Research need not be only a summary, a theory, a test and conclusion. The role of a researcher may remain story-teller - to transform a vast collection of data into a story for others, but it also means the sources can be exposed to others, not merely as evidence for that story, but to make plain the possibility for other stories using that material, or following on and elaborating from it.
Here I'm displaying the data and resources, with links to it instead of presenting a paper, however the selection and organisation of the data, tells a story, tells many stories, many connected, related and digressive stories. Importantly this works by association and juxtaposition. We're familiar with the idea that meaning is context dependent. So placing works alongside each other has an affect on the meaning. So, ordering of the selection is not simply categorical but is done to tell a story, to layer meanings, resonating among the items. Eg: Placing the Marchant's Map of Commerce quote alongside transatlantic data gives the lie, to quote Sir Walter Raleigh, to the rosy picture of international trade argued in the quote. Following this up with a current Economics 101 text book illustrates that this mythology of the inherent mutual benefit of trade is still taught as a formal mathematical principle, almost a law of nature, though it is beautiful theory that doesn't always work in practice.
Morel's campaign is not only interesting in that it demonstrates that millions of people can be unaware that their actions (riding bicycles) is dependant on the massacre, rape and mutilation of millions of other people (as under King Leopold II's Free State). Nor only because it demonstrates that if made aware of this, people will do something to change that situation. Nor only because, in the case of chocolate it demonstrates that history can repeat. It is also interesting in how it demonstrates Morel's faith in the ideology of the system that produced the atrocities he worked against. As a British shipping clerk working in Belgium he noticed that while vast amounts of lucrative rubber and other valuable commodities were imported from the Congo, mostly guns and chains were exported. This did not agree with the principle of international trade that we see has persisted, at least since the time of the Marchant's Map of Commerce to present day Economics 101 text books - the principle that each party trades what it has in surplus for what it has in deficit such that each benefits overall. There is a difference between what *should* be the case and what *is* the case. Economic theory, from the Marchant's Map of Commerce, through to Economics 101 text book is discussed as if it's what *is* the case - the natural tendency of markets when 'free' of manipulation (albeit a little fuzzy because it involves humans). When it turns out that it is not the case - that international trade benefits both parties, it becomes a moral imperative. It becomes the way markets *should* behave, how international trade *should* work, even though it doesn't.
While acknowledging the 'agency' of objects, their ability to affect and control what it's possible for us to do, to train our bodies, our dependence on them and our dependence on the vast network, this remains an ethical issue. Objects constrain our behaviour, which has consequences for other subjects. But we are not dumb machines.
Salary is not the opposite of slavery. It is the system of governing bodies in moneyed society (Taussig on debt fetishism, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man.)
As individuals in the world, in a world with other people, we are always in a strategic situation and we must research if we are 1stly to recognise the forces that control us, that constrain what we can do, 2ndly understand their workings, 3rdly learn to what extent we can manipulate them, how to manipulate them, to decide 4thly what options there are and their likely outcomes, what causes we want to have for what effects, and how we want to be affected, how much energy we want to expend on some action or other, to maximise our own agency or 'freedom'. While there are platitudes that easily spring to mind here, 'the price of freedom is eternal vigilance' etc, the point is that this isn't a platitude, we can't let it be dismissed in platitudes or nothing changes.
Consider modern art. When photography was invented there seemed no sense in painting in a photo realist style any more. There was a profound questioning of art and painting. What is art? What is painting? Why continue painting when we could simply take a photograph? There were many answers to these questions with their corresponding movements and manifestos. Abstract art abstracts the aesthetics of form, line and colour from pictorial representation. American expressionism makes painting about paint, according to Greenberg. In expressionism is continued the Romantic ideal of art being a depiction of the artist's internal states, genius, emotions, torment, psyche. Collage and bricolage goes beyond paint. Dada mocks the borgouisie, satirises everything, only to recognise that urinals and bottle racks are also art. While photography captures space in a moment, through rapid successive photographs it also was able to represent time. Futurism painted time, speed and destructive change. Magic realism, partly reacting against or not accepting radical abstraction was a term first used in Europe to describe figurative work that was not photo-realistic but which restored a sense of 'magic', which 'de-automated', made us look at and appreciate aesthetically, ordinary things or the ordinary mundane world around us. Gropius, a founder of Bauhaus, worshipped the designer as able to give soul to manufactured products "The artist is capable of giving the lifeless machine-made product a soul. His involvement is not a luxury, but must become an essential part, integral to the system of modern industry." to the neglect of the erased souls of actual people involved in harvesting, manufacturing, transport, retail etc.
At the same time there was an interest in art that had been brought to Europe over centuries of globalisation - art which although figurative was not photo-realist because of the ineptitude of craftsmen, but because it was not intended to be. This art was figurative because it was meant to embody or conceal, to enact, invoke or use the spirit of it's subject, as in African fetishes, or continue, participate in, perpetuate and perform a refined aesthetic convention as in Japanese art.
Amidst the mechanisation of objects, products and life that characterises modernisation, reflected in photographic images, the appeal of the self evident mark of a human hand in art, the uniqueness of an individual subject's distinctive style, their genius or personal expression, the exploration and manifestation of the human psyche, would have an appeal and come to the fore as something valued in art and objects.
Picasso recognised an abstract aesthetic appeal in the African sculpture. Designers recognised a refined aesthetic in pop Japanese woodblock prints. Picasso knew little of the specific literary context that gave African sculptures particular meaning, and little of the people that crafted them, when he was first influenced by their form.
The approach taken here, can be described as ethical in the sense that it also responds to the erasure of the human sources of material objects through global supply chains and mechanical production. But it seeks not to create hand made objects that signify the unique subjectivity of their author and their intented meaning, rather to trace the sources of objects in order to recognise subjectivities associated with them.
Amidst modernised people, manufactured goods are ordinary, common and cheap while handmade items have a nostalgic aura and are expensive, an ideal for the priveleged who can afford organic locally grown produce at the Sunday market, or custom or crafted items. For non modernised peoples, manufactured items have a glossy appeal and are prestigious, while home grown and hand made items are often ordinary, crude, provincial.
The following summarises and elaborates some points answers to questions during the panel, in particular there was a question about the difference between morality and ethics, and also comments on how ordinary things seem to enslave us more than enable us when they frustratingly break when we really need to use them.
What is a morality? Is relatively easy to answer. There are statements of actuality, such as 'The moon is in the sky.' or 'Unicorns have one horn.' (regardless of their truth, falsehood or reality). Morality is differentiated from these as statements of what *should* be the case, rather than what *is* the case, 'Thou shalt not kill.', 'I should drink more water.' To differentiate this from ethics then, personally I like the ethics of Emmanual Levinas. For Levinas ethics is about the 'infinite Other'. Here is a pen, an object, it's just a pen and I use it. With you though I can never be completely sure I know what you are thinking. Also, you can have opinions about me and judge me. If you say something to me, I'm never entirely sure I've understood fully, and if I repeat it back to you you can say my interpretation of what you said is not quite right. It is this infinite unknowability of the Other that defines an ethical relation. We could say, an ethical relation is one in which moral statements become possible - you can say I should or shouldn't do this, and we can argue about it, in contrast to my interaction with a pen, when I simply use it. If, alone, I change my mind about how I should be using it, there's no debate. Someone else might have a different opinion about how pen's should be used. For Levinas this is not necessarily about judgements of power and constraint - we can learn from each other. These judgements can be 'teaching'. If someone suggests another way of doing things, a way things should be done, I might find that's better. The debate can be a conversation not an argument. Levinas goes on to discuss a range of other things in this light - how ethics is prior to epistemology, how objects mediate interactions with others economically and in discourse, love, youth and old age, enjoyment, etc. It is possible to treat Others *as if* they were objects, rather than subjects for who the world also exists, which is what Levinas calls violence, as in the case of slavery, or simply making stereotypical assumptions about someone, to ignore their ability to speak, judge etc.
One thing appealing about OOO, particularly Harman, is it's Heideggerian views on using objects. According to Heidegger, we are always using things in the *background*. We are using the floor right now, but nobody was thinking about that until I just mentioned it. This is the Heideggerian view of 'being in the world' - we are always using things and we don't become away of them until they become a problem. This collection is largely about cybernetics which works in the opposite didrection - in learning how to interact with things they are initially in the foreground, problematic and difficult (technology solves a difficulty, making it easier, and learning it is also difficult, requires conscious effort) and as learn, our interaction becomes automatic, the object and the interaction moves to the background. This applies to all things in the world, including, in post human sense, our own bodies. Once we have learned to drive a car we no longer think about moving the indicator, turning the wheel, braking and accelerating, we simply turn left, or simply go where we want. It's like learning to walk. Latour talks about how quickly technology goes from being a fiction, a vague idea in someone's head, to becoming an assumed part of everyday life. Our interactions with things in the world are cybernetic. We don't notice what is automated until it breaks. We hurt our leg, the tire goes flat. It requires an action, the Russian Formalists call it de-automation, to remind ourselves of what has come to be assumed. That's part of what I'm hoping to do here today - de-automating rubber, chocolate and mobile phones. If you read these things you find all this amazing stuff and some of it is gravely serious - I still don't fully understand how I could not have known about the biggest war since World War II, happening in my life time.
When we say 'cyborg' or 'cybernetics' it usually means some technological enhancement to our abilities - being able to see at night, travel faster, communicate further, or prosthetic limbs and so on. One of the main points of this though, is a supercyborg - something like Morton's 'hyperobjects', objects much larger and more complex than ourselves, so large they can't be controlled by anyone, that we can only interact with at a local level. Things like the global economy or the weather. In these supercybernetic systems we are as controlled by things just as much as we might control things, from moment to moment interactions through our whole life. Having a phone and a car greatly affects my chances of getting a job. In the material here you can see how global demand for commodities affects people for example. War, government policy, international trade all affect an individual's choices, from the decision of a Japanese person to emigrate to Brazil, down to my need to drive to work in the morning. We can't control everything, but without knowing anything at all about the distant effects we cause, or about how things effect us, we can't recognise the meaningful, real, ethical relation we are in in our interactions with ordinary things, we can't begin to think about how we might avoid causes what we don't want to happen, being effected in ways we don't want to be and regain some agency.
In an ethical relation we recognise an Other for who things are useful. Something which is not merely useful (though it can be treated in that way, Levinas' calls this 'violence') but who can make moral statements, judge us, teach us. For who the world is also useful, who is not merely used or has things done to them (violence or charity) but who also *does*, for who the world also exists. This isn't about 'fair trade' chocolate, though I think that's a good idea (the existance of such a thing implies the default situation is unfair trade). In saying this is an attempt at an ethical work, and an ethical interaction with ordinary things, I'm trying to avoid moralising. I'm not saying, there is child slavery in Africa, so you should donate to some charity or other. Acts of charity can sometimes 'objectify' Others (see Teddy Rouge's blog), reducing people to 'objects of charity' (acts of charity can also be much needed and appreciated). I want to acknowledge that 'infinite unknowability' of the other. I want to get some idea of who someone is, what is happening to them in the supply chain, at the source. I want to gain control over how I am affected and what affects I have on Others. This is why it's not enough to say 1 or 5 million people died. I want to ask, who are they, not 'how many', and what might someone think? It's difficult to find that out, despite the existance of the internet, so I use many many sources about many things. Statistics, music, politics, social media chats, book research, history, face to face interviews. This is why the material is full of multiple points of view, not just arguing a case, and doesn't propose any solutions - it must acknowledge that there are many people, each with a life time of experience, each with some nuanced point of view and way of being in the world. It's not simply a matter of victim and oppressor, where the removal of oppression means the gaining of freedom. It's a matter of everyone making do in some difficult situation that has arisen out of complex historical patterns and current circumstance. The main point is to leave it open, not closed, or solved so as to recognise the 'infinite unknowability' of other people - and this means you and me, my friend and enemy, my neighbour and someone on the other side of the world.
What is Ethical or subjectifying writing?
- Writing which occassionally disrupts automatic interpretation
- doesn't de-automate in an arbitrary way, but in a way that references an Other
- references Others
- does this in a way that doesn't inappropriately lay claim to, falsely present as one's own, function as a trophy, or disrespect cultural context of the source
- recognises incommensurability of translation through these references by aiming to avoid preconceptions in selection of content and recognition of forms, avoiding simplistic and forced transposition of content into familiar forms, by the de-automation of retaining unfamiliar content, idioms and forms in the original.
- avoids the artiface of 'typical' characters, such as a character who personifies a people, an ethnicity, an epoche, a class etc. People stand in relation to, and define themselves, and are defined by others, in relation to these abstract identies. While a 'subject' can be treated as if it were an 'object', 'objectified' in this way (Levinasian 'violence'), it remains the subject is that which defines, rather than that which is defined.
- one means of achieving this is to present multiple views. Another is to present a character with an opinion of a 'typical' identity, or who combines expected with unexpected qualities and actions, or describe marginal, conflicting and rebellious thoughts and behaviour.
- do not present people as if complete or completely consistent. Subjects are not completely knowable. You never really know what someone is thinking, or their history and reasoning that motivates all they say and do. Subjects will disagree with you, and will disagree with your understanding of what they meant. Reflect this in the text. One means is by presenting fragments that allude to a greater story beyond what is presented.
- Recognise and highlight the impossibility of perfection and accuracy in your account. A person cannot be completely known. This can be achieved with techniques already mentioned, for example through fragmentation, multiplicity, inconsistency and polyvocality.
- Remain open to judgement, revision and reinterpretation. An object cannot judge you or your judgement. An object cannot contradict your assumption. A subject can. Write knowing you may be wrong, and make this apparent in the text. For example, establish a case and present a foil to it.
- Risk. Knowing you may be wrong, indeed knowing that with so many people around you will almost certainly be wrong in someone's eyes, may lead to a reluctance to say anything, especially in volatile and contentious areas, such as white australians writing aboriginal characters. This might lead to avoiding writing anything on the subject at all, simply because it's easier. In the example of aboriginal characters in white australian literature this could be another form of terra nullius. The first 20 pages of Patrick White's Tree of Man are profoundly violent because, in describing a settler clearing remote unsettled bush, there is no mention, not even a hint of the local owners at all. Ignoring the existance of people to avoid ethical dilemmas is a violence of silence. So proceed with risk. Throw off the blankets and get out of bed into the world. Perhaps this risk itself signifies it is something worth doing rather than not worth doing. It requires proceeding doing everything you can to get it right, knowing that you might not, not pretending that you have, knowing that acceptance by one person is not acceptance by all, allowing that you will be corrected.
- This is not a set of moral prescriptions for doing the right thing. This is not criteria for condemning non-conformant texts. Anything may be written and this is what makes writing one of the most powerful human, and ethical, freedoms of all. They are not limitations but, on the contrary should help discard the limitations of mediocrity and irrelevance, they should help avoid rehashing what is already familiar, what contributes little, and should help add interest and value to texts.
When I speak on this topic, someone usually mentions Marxism in a question, as if the assumption is that this is a Marxist project or I am a Marxist. Karl Marx and Adam Smith both have interesting and very useful ideas (as do Jevons, Keynes, Schumpeter, Pareto, Friedman, Galbraith, Sen, etc). But while they are good theories, this doesn't necessarily mean they work in practice and often don't. We need to be wary of these ideas becoming ideological - of being promoted as an ideal state such that, when it fails to describe reality becomes a moral imperative and various factors and groups are sought to explain away the failure (moral fallacy + confirmation fallacy). Isn't it right before our eyes that communism tends to dictatorship and don't free markets tend to oligopolistic consolidation, increasing division between rich and poor and exploitation of a desperate majority by a priveleged few? Isn't it obvious, both in Marxism and free market theory that price competition will impoverish units of labour? It doesn't mean these theories should be thrown away. They are useful, but they are just the ideas of some people. We should recognise where and when they do and don't apply. We need to be pragmatic, not ideological. Use the theory as a reference point, to analyse a situation, to apply and see if it works and where it doesn't, then figure out why and adjust accordingly.
These theories fail because they world is a much noisier place than any theory can describe - (it is a point generally acknowledged in Economics 101, but ignored in politics, that these are just theories, and, as a human science, much more fallible than physics). Economic theories also fail because they describe the activity of subjects, not objects. Subjects are not predictable in the way objects are. One of the main ways of distinguishing subject from object is predictability - a subject changes behaviour. Also, a subject can understand a theory, a law about a system and purposefully manipulate it, "corrupt" it, "resist" it, change it.
I try not to think too politically, because I want this to be about Ethics but politics is an unavoidable part of that. It's a bit of a hole in Levinas, this lack of accounting for politics. All he seems able to arrive at is that politics is always violence because it always objectifies the Other because it is not a face to face encounter, but must make generalisations about people. He has a point but we can't simply ignore the reality of politics and try to only ever deal with people face to face, as politics will overrun us, do voilence to us, while we are trying to have our cosy chat. It's the other main hole in his theory (the other being the problem of Face/Writing discussed elsewhere). I think Spivak resolves this gap in Levinas. Politics is something we stand in relation to and can use strategically without relinquishing our subjectivity. I might strategically identify with some political group to maximise my own agency, or attempt to acheive some moral or ethical outcome I desire. So long as I can choose to do that and I'm not *reduced* to that. Politics also offers a means of 'speaking' when I would otherwise be ignored and powerless because of it. If someone breaks a tool, I think is her example, what makes the difference between that just being someone losing their temper and getting fired over it, or a protest, representative of other people with the same frustrations as I, a rallying point that might galvanise others to action, a part of a story of a group of people, a political action. I am not a Marxist. I am Bill. I guess you could call my stance, loosely speaking and without too using terms too strictly a pragmatic anarchist - in simplistic terms anarchy doesn't work because as soon as you remove institutions, organisations, laws, enforcement of power etc, the first thing people start to do is form into groups of common interest, organising laws, institutions, exercising power. In that sense we are already in 'anarchy' and what we are doing is organising into different groups etc. We are all in always in a strategic situation - faced with choices, and in a situation where it is not so much having choices which matters, but gaining more control of what choices are available. If you point a gun at someone you are giving them a choice - do as I say or die. It's being in control of that choice that determines power, and it is never a simple case of having power/freedom or not having it. It's always a matter of figuring out how to maximise agency in a practical situation. The political system I would advocate (as the best way of maximising my, and everyone's agency, [a sort of categorical imperative]) is actually very moderate - a matter of balancing things. In Western civilisation I think democratic government with 'free' markets well-tempered by non-corrupt unionism achieves a pretty good standard of living, and miriad benefits, a state similar to what Orwell advocated. A state that minimises enforced equality so that things can remain diverse, interesting, effort can be rewarded and privelege is not a birthright, and so that people aren't reduced to a lack of freedom through desperate poverty that means they must accept any terms offered, etc. I don't think such a system can be simply translated out of the Western context to achieve an ideal state everywhere. To use a popular reference point for political economy - the collusion of corporation and government we are seeing today is uncannily like the definition of Fascism before WWII, which contrasted itself to the left wing agenda of proletariat against ruling classes by advocating collaboration between corporate leaders, government and unions to build a strong nation state. It might sound noble to be working together like that, but we all know what it leads to. One problem is that while we were once approaching a generally good and effective state, in the West (I can remember being able to get good health care and free education and eating well and having a reasonable place to live - and that was available to most people in this country) it's currently being torn asunder, by stealth and sometimes blatantly, with callous disregard for anything good that has been acheived in Western Civilisation, relying on our complacency, accustomed to living in the lucky country. Australia is becoming a 'banana republic', or more accurately, a 'fossil republic'. So, I am not a Marxist. Critiquing capitalism doesn't make you a Marxist. Marxism has plenty of useful ideas for figuring out what's going on, as does Adam Smith, etc etc. We are always in a strategic position regardless of the ideology we live under. If we celebrate Kundera for writing despite Communist oppression, we ought also celebrate those who write despite Capitalist oppression. Under Aristocracy critique the injustices of the aristocracy. Under theocracy critique the hipocracy of the clergy. Under Communism, expose the lies and inequalities of Communism. So too under Capitalism - show it's poverty, exploitation, injustices, entrenched priveleges and enslavements, all those ills it claims to be a panacea for. It is a matter of 'metis' - as de Certeau describes it. This doesn't mean dog eat dog selfishness. It means developing a canniness, a wisdom that lets you see the most effective way of working the situation, of finding that small tweak that gives greatest gain, the one moment you can sneak by, of taking out the one screw that halts the whole machine, of finding the critical points in the game, to avoid exhausting yourself with ranting and raving at a brick wall or ending up dead. This is an economic issue, particularly important for those most economically disadvantaged because they don't have much time or money or a whole team of experts in their employ, a matter of minimal effort for maximium affect. Keep your head down. Do you want to end up in a mass grave? Weigh all options, at times it may be best to play the game. The revolution isn't coming tomorrow is it? Under communism, support the party. Under capitalism differentiate yourself in a competitive market as a unit of labour in high demand. Sometimes you have to say, "Yes Boss." because you get food or an appointment with the doctor at the end of the day. Most systems aren't all bad, usually it's people doing good or bad things within whatever system that makes all the difference. Sometimes things get so bad everybody does something about it. Sometimes simply doing the right thing where and when you can without upsetting the apple cart is the optimal choice. There is a season. (When I say 'you' I also mean myself. These are lessons I have learnt, and want to pass on now I'm old and almost dead.) If you want to have the Great Barrier Reef do something with the environmentalists, if you want better work conditions participate in the union, if you think unionism is pointless if it doesn't extend to cheaper more desperate labour markets, tell your union it must be global and extend to all workers (workers *of the world* remember?), if you want democracy research and expose the people behind the secret suing of governments by multinationals, if you notice some problem there is no organisation for, decide if you care enough to put the amount of energy into starting something over it. If you want to preserve your billions of dollars in income, well, you already know more than I do about strategy.
The main point is not to be ignorant. To be active against your own ignorance. To optimise your strategic position you need to be able to affect the situation. The more you understand how it works the more information you gain, the better you can do this and decide for yourself. To regain control of what constrains and affects you and how your actions affect others.
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