“In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears as something at our command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Hölderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.”
Taken from “The Question Concerning Technology” (1953) by Martin Heidegger. Translated into English by William Lovitt.

greengang said: I'm also wondering about your dismissal of contemporary art as "detrius"- What is it about contemporary art, and what sorts of pieces of contemporary art do you perceive as so worthless?

Thanks for your interest. We have tackled this subject, both directly and indirectly, several times in the past. In essence, the problem with contemporary art is that it is based on several false notions. The first is that art is self-expression. This creates a dynamic of violence between the viewer and artist; and it leads to an obsession with “subtext” and “meaning”, to the detriment of tangible content. At this time, its purest expression is conceptual art. Self-expression replaced the ancient idea that art is depiction: a non-violent, experiential space in which the viewer is immersed. Hence, we have on one end the vapid, content-free work of Tracey Emin, and on the other the rich, endlessly complex work of Gian Bernini.

Second, contemporary art is based on the concept of ”art”. As we have said in previous articles, this is a recent invention that would have puzzled most people throughout history. The idea that art is a category has led to the further belief that artworks are meaningful in themselves: that there is significance in their very existence. In fact, there is today an unspoken consensus that those things which are not called “art” are worse—less ”important”—than those which are so called. All of this is false. Art does not exist; artworks are only meaningful to the extent that their depictions are meaningful; and, in large part, it is the contemporary works not generally called “art” that deserve attention. The idea that “self-expression” is “art” and that “art” is “meaningful” has allowed for the justification of work that, to the average person, has no worth whatsoever. It is the reason why someone will pay roughly $4.6 million for a pile of candy assembled by Félix González-Torres.

Third, as suggested above, art has been given to the intellectual alone. This is a critical part of contemporary and even much modern art: the notion that only an individual with too much education can decode the “meanings” placed, intentionally or unintentionally, within a work. This means that contemporary art has no importance to the everyman. Seeing an exhibition of My Bed is not a transcendent or meaningful experience, because My Bed has no surface content. There is nothing exciting or beautiful or thrilling or even interesting about My Bed. That is the point of the work. To the innocent bystander who does not find significance in irony for irony’s sake, it is an Emperor’s New Clothes situation through-and-through. That bystander, it should be said, is the only one who really sees the work for itself.

Much more could be said (and much more has been said in the linked articles), but we will leave off at this point. We hope this was helpful.

The Assertive Self, part one

When John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and their followers kicked the snowball in the Middle Ages, the end result was not only modern isolation. The transformation of every self into a fortress caused tragic loneliness, yes; but it also prepared the West for war—the “war of all against all”, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes. With the self incapable of connecting to that which was “other”, the only remaining option was to attack: to assert the self over against the world. Scotist-Ockhamist voluntarism, by putting the will in command, left us with the endless, arbitrary conflict of power-against-power. Self-interest and the goal of domination were the root of every human action, and, some argued, of the entire universe.

We begin this series on the assertive self with a look at voluntarism’s earliest, most innocent cultural manifestation: Renaissance humanism in art and philosophy. First, a refresher. We have said before that Duns Scotus, a medieval scholastic philosopher, broke from Aristotelian tradition by reimagining humanity and the Christian God as “willing”, rather than “knowing”, entities. With his nominalism, Ockham expanded on these views: he declared that nearly all logic and truth were arbitrary, and that all beings were totally disconnected and individual. Intentionally or not, his philosophy shored up every human into an isolated, “buffered”, self-assertive identity with no true connection to the outside. Historian Michael Allen Gillespie, in his book The Theological Origins of Modernity, tells us that the humanist writer Petrarch was the first to explore the implications of this voluntaristic New Man.

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stilleatingoranges said: Hi. Your recent post about conflict was an interesting read, but your conclusion about Derridean philosophy is horribly flawed. That plot structure doesn't undermine it at all--it obviously contains violence, because there are differences between the acts. For Derrida, ALL difference is violence. So, reading the will to power into that kishotenketsu thing is absolutely no problem.

Hey, Oranges. That’s an interesting objection. However, you’ve missed the point. The idea was that difference is only violence if your thinking is built on the will to power. Under that system, yes; the kishōtenketsu structure remains violent. But to look at it that way begs the question: whether the will to power can be considered the most fundamental element of being is what’s at issue.

This writer’s claim was that an equally viable candidate can be considered to exist within the kishōtenketsu structure, which constitutes much Eastern writing and even logic. It inundates their culture and thought, just as ideas of conflict and supremacy—at least partly thanks to the three-act plot structure—inundate the West. For your objection to work, you’d first have to demonstrate that the will to power describes being more accurately than any possible system derived from kishōtenketsu. To pull that off, you’d need to maintain a multicultural perspective free from the Eurocentric bias that defines so much of Western philosophy.

As an aside, whether or not difference turns out to be violence, deconstruction makes no sense if stated from a worldview based on kishōtenketsu rather than the three-act structure. This is because the worst violence—the thing that Derrida seeks to avoid with deconstruction—does not necessarily exist within such a system. The worst violence can be thought of as the climax of the three-act structure, the part in which one thing wholly defeats another; but kishōtenketsu contains no such climax. It is comparative to the last. Events co-exist without one being forced to suffocate the Other, so to speak.

The significance of plot without conflict

In the West, plot is commonly thought to revolve around conflict: a confrontation between two or more elements, in which one ultimately dominates the other. The standard three- and five-act plot structures—which permeate Western media—have conflict written into their very foundations. A “problem” appears near the end of the first act; and, in the second act, the conflict generated by this problem takes center stage. Conflict is used to create reader involvement even by many post-modern writers, whose work otherwise defies traditional structure.

The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by contemporary writers’ workshops and Internet “guides” to writing. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has influenced not only fiction, but writing in general—arguably even philosophy. Yet, is there any truth to this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity. For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.

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