Friday, June 29, 2007

the daughter of jephthah hides her name in the night

Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord's, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering." So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel. Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her he tore his clothes, and said, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble for me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow." She said to him, "My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites." And she said to her father, "Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go down to the mountains and mourn my virginity, my companions and I." "Go," he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and mourned her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
-Anonymous, Judges 11.29-40 (10th century B.C.)


Yuqi Wang, "Ling" (1992)

beyond the long exhale that is night
the vicious lie in wait to consume the innocent
i have wrapped the night around me
as if i could hold it there
my teeth clenched, defiant against the dawn
oh that i were a prophet, i would hold the moon in the sky
and cry out, ‘peace’

by day they trade life for life and blood for blood
but the night denies every division:
hides man from woman, ammon from gilead, the ethiopian from the egyptian
god from humanity
oh that i were a prophet, i would make the moon new
and give birth to the stars: my children

let my name be Secret
so that it cannot be taken
they will ask my father, with the red edge still in his hand
but it will slip from his mind, like a maid before her marriage: dancing, free
oh that i were a prophet, and the voice of war was swallowed by silence
and the silence would cry out, ‘peace’


Monday, June 25, 2007

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

looking in the mirror: orientalism in music

One aspect of the electronic, postmodern world is that there has been a reinforcement of the stereotypes by which the Orient is viewed. Television, films, and all the media's resources have forced information into more and more standardized molds. So far as the Orient is concerned, standardization and cultural stereotyping have intensified the hold of the nineteenth-century academic and imaginative demonology of "the mysterious Orient."
-Edward Said, Orientalism (1978)

By this time it should not come as a surprise that the site, both geographic and intellectual, which we call the Middle East, is seen not only as exotic, but as something erotic. It is a place where sexuality is unleashed in the absence of the civilizing impulse. No matter how many records Nancy Ajram sells in Egypt, the face of this Middle East will be the Niqaabi or the Afghan woman in the burqa (it is indicative of the problem that indeed most Westerners do not make a distinction between Arabian, Afghan, Persian, Pakistani, etc.). This eroticized vision is a necessary part of Western policy towards the region; it is a place where one's potency must be demonstrated. The violence and the eroticism cannot be separated. It is no accident that the two constant images that mesmerize the mainstream media are the militant and the sexually available, restrained woman.

This geographic erogenous zone is a place Occidentals plunder when they wish because here the rules of civilization no longer apply. It is a place that obeys only the laws of power and is thus closer to Nature, but for that reason less human. We appropriate it to ourselves at moments when our own passions seem uncontainable by the facade of civilization. This embrace of the Orient can come in a confused rush, much like passion itself, indiscriminately devouring whatever is available, expressing and managing the violence of desire by displacing onto a setting that is not one's own. Displacing it from oneself by denying that this is really who one is. This is who They are, but not I.

Sarah Brightman, "Harem", Harem (2003)

Brightman's video received (relatively mild) criticism for its mixture of Arabian and Indian images and symbols, but this really misses the point. Instead what one should see is the necessary confusion that comes of trying to make sense of the unfreedom we genuinely feel but are forced to deny and therefore must project onto someone, some-They who are, Naturally, unfree. This is repeated in the song "Free". Here the sound is not Orientalist, but the setting and theme is quintessentially so. Once again amid a group of young women in Asian clothing, this time rendered immobile, Brightman tells us of her desire to be free as she flounders in her desire to be desired. The contradiction is not, of course, in the desire for recognition, but in the dehumanizing form which that recognition apparently must take.

Sarah Brightman, "Free", Harem (2003)

Sting's collaboration with Cheb Mami bears some of the same elements. There are obvious allusions to fetishism: the concealing of the drivers face and her uniform, which repeats, in an Occidental fashion, the fantasy of the veiled Arabian woman. These themes are especially prominent, not surprisingly, in the remix version, which invokes the sexuality of the dance club. There women, now uncovered, dance in real cages, on display for the male viewer.

Yet one should not simply toss this visual experiment into the same bin of confusion with the Brightman fantasy, for at least two reasons. First, the desire of Sting to reach out to Cheb Mami is indicative of a larger and very long-standing theme in Sting's work: his internationalism, transculturalism. He constantly experiments in a variety of musical genres and sounds. Thus the incorporation of North African rai is in fact an acknowledgement of its humanity, its importance as a form of popular music. This is in stark contrast to Brightman, whose musical selections have often forgotten the reasons for their own existence and thus have to try to situate themselves within the world of popular music, reducing themselves to kitsch. Second, while the vision of "Desert Rose" is classical Orientalism, it does twist it by internalizing it. The desert is not some far away place, it turns out. The passions, violent and erotic, are not ultimately other, but are our own. The song leads back to the Occidental world and holds up a mirror to our own hypocrisy, even as Sting ends the song awash in a sea of young dancing women. The harem is not far away. It is here.

Sting and Cheb Mami, "Desert Rose", Sacred Love (2003)

Sting and Cheb Mami, "Desert Rose -- Remix", Sacred Love (2003)


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

catholics like carnivals too

while many of you are waiting with bated breath for the next carnival of islam in the west, it is still several weeks away. on the other hand we catholics are pretty fond of the occasional carnival ourselves. this week's carnival, at the snoring scholar, included, among many other things, my post on saying the impossible. so go over and check out what catholics are talking about this week, all set to a lovely gardening theme, at the 124th catholic carnival.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

...and i even had a pair of strappy sandals already picked out, too!

LoA: i am the one who showed an interest in her ring; i am the one who oooh'ed and aaaahh'd over her dress; i am the one who went shoe shopping with her; and YOU get invited to the bachelorette party?!?

She: gender discrimination sucks don't it?

Friday, June 15, 2007

this week at the carnival...

the 176th christian carnival is up at, and includes my essay on "saying the impossible". also my notes and vassili's letter on the role of the 7th ecumenical council ( held in nicea in 787) in the philosophy of art were included in the week's patristic roundup over at hyperekperissou.

best wishes,

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Odd Nerdrum, "One Blind Singer and Two Dancers" (2001)

What's next? I will grant that the comparison between the ideology of the revolutionary movements present in the Middle East to post-WW2 Communism is an improvement. It is at least a better comparison than the poor comparison to fascism. At least Communism was transnational in its own self-description. And certainly, Mao and Stalin destroyed their countries in the mid-twentieth century, murdering freely, imprisoning arbitrarily and generally using fear and power to extend their rule. Their programs of national reform destroyed the heritage of their people. And Mao and Stalin had just about as much in common with Marx as the Taliban (for instance) does with most practitioners of Islam: each tyrant twisting the words of a prophet to justify the deaths of any and all who disagree with them.

But the fact that one day the Islamic terrorists can be fascists and the next day they are communists, one day the Nazis, the next day its a Red Islam (not that Shariati minds), makes clear the extent to which the rhetoric is just that: rhetoric. Bush and company are no closer to understanding who and what they are fighting against today, than they were the day before or will be tomorrow. As with all good Islamophobia, the rhetoric is not meant to identify the enemy so much as rally public opinion into a cohesive and deadly force. Bush and company are grasping at straws, desparately comparing their enemy to enemies of old in an effort to contain them, comprehend them and make the American people understand why Islam is such a threat to America (not the "good Muslims" of course. *wink, wink*). Its a major victory if government policy makers can tell you the difference between Sunni and Shia, let alone the differences between an Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

And finally, one must ask, will we allow our country, our governments to kill in the name of its own idols? Has the fanaticism of Bush been less deadly? The Goddess of Democracy has been the justification for the destruction of Iraq, and many within our government would to build a new Temple to her in Iran as well. Her hands are red with blood and her priests are calling out for more victims.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

a letter and some background

in case you were not already convinced that this is a nerdy blog, i bring you todays post.

"John of Damascus"

in what was purely a coincidence, both vassili and i referenced the seventh great ecumenical council held in nicea in 787. i added an important section of the council as an epigraph in my elaboration on a post that i had originally sketched out a couple of months ago on the place of the holy in art (see "saying the impossible"), while vassili mentioned the council as he addressed some of his critical concerns with the philosophical position underlying my two posts on han-wu shen (part 1 and part 2 can be found at these links). i wish simply to provide a little bit of background to the reader before i provide vassili's letter because while the council is very important for the development of the understanding of art within the christian world, it is not particularly well known.

the early ecumenical councils were the gathering of christian bishops from all over the world and really centered around disputes over what it meant to say that jesus was god. these resulted in mature formulations of the doctrine of the trinity (god is a dynamic unity: father, son and spirit), the doctrine of the incarnation (christ is one person, the divine Logos, fully human and fully divine), and culminated in the controversy over the appropriateness of artistic images, icons, for representing christ, etc. one of the main challenges that christianity always faced was dealing with the ban on images and the association of all images with idolatry. the opponents of icons recalled this ban and the transcendence of god in refusing to allow artistic representations to be associated with churches and christian worship. the proponents of the icons, on the other hand, argued that god's identification with the created order, already mentioned in the earlier councils, meant that god itself had taken up created images, icons of god and thus justified their use. god's revelation had shown that god could be revealed in and through the material order and that indeed the reconciliation of humanity with god required it ("what is not assumed cannot be saved"). and this ultimately was the position of the seventh ecumenical council represented primarily in the writings of john of damascus and maximus the confessor. his references to athanasius, gregory of nyssa and gregory palamas refer to important figures in the history of christianity dating from the 4th c. to the middle ages.

vassili's letter should be read as a response to my earlier use of hegel and especially the quote from lukacs that serves as the starting point for my first post on han-wu. as i understand it, vassili wishes to deny the adequacy of concepts to the being or essence of their objects without denying the possibility of a kind of realism that acts iconographically to point you beyond the image (this would be the point of the distinction mentioned in the quote from theodore the studite and his use of walter benjamin at the end) [n.b., benjamin and lukacs had a long and often contentious dispute over the role of art and especially expressionism in the 20th c.][one might also recall adorno's strenuous insistence on maintaining the non-identity of concept and object]. my own response will follow soon.

finally...i bring you vassili's very thoughtful letter (the original can be seen here):

Dear 'Lawrence',
i think you will agree that in order to hope of any realism in visual arts we first have to have an answer to epistemological problem of what is really real and how that is known to us. I do not want here neither to open an extensive discussion of that onerous (especially since Kant's time) matter, nor to jump into any final statement; but I would like to offer a point of view. Let me start:

It is quite known the controversy about the icons—the capability of depiction of Christ mainly—during the mid-Byzantine era which resulted into the 7th Ecumenical Council and destroyed Byzantine State’s unity for ever. What is not very known is the subtleties of arguments of both sides as a result that this controversy was nothing but the pick of the iceberg which was the old (and never ending) debate about the possibility of knowledge of God and the nature of man’s salvation. (In fact the whole theology of Greek Fathers from Athanasius to Gregory Palamas is nothing but an epistemologic struggle for asserting man’s potentiality of participation into God’s uncreated energy/-ies and, hence, God’s eternal life.) What recapitalized Church’s answer was Theodore Studite’s aphorism that “what is depicted in an icon [of Christ] is not [his] nature but hypostasis.” (Of course that needs a lot of discussion, since the distinction between hypostasis, or person, and nature, or substance, is a very old and fundamental issue in Greek Patristic theology which in fact it goes back to Aristotle, and, in my opinion, farther back to Greek Archaic thought; but here and now this discussion is not possible; so, i will avoid it and i will use Studite’s aphorism just as an Archimedean point.) This aphorism has a more general value for visual arts since it keeps open the possibility of a true image without, at the same time, falling into the vicious circle of trying to find a way out of total-realism’s labyrinth. To make it a bit more straightforward: Gregory of Nyssa gives a nice account about matter and perception; he says that the matter is the concurrence (out of the divine will and power) of all of matter’s features, which each-one-in-itself is nothing but a mere name or concept (PG 44, 69C), and that nature’s idiom is her state of continuous changing out of her constitution (ibid, 108A) and of her immanent creative reason [κτίσεως λόγον=reason of being] (ibid, 88D). And how can we perceive natural reality? He says, through hypostasis, which is nature’s manifestation via her specific idioms (PG 32, 328). Gregory Palamas similarly says: a substance without a distinct-from-it energy is totally non-existent [ανυπόστατος=without hypostasis] and a mere speculation of mind (Works, vol.5, 112).

So what i try to say is that the only possible and honest realism in visual arts is the depiction of what is commonly accepted as naturally idiomatic in our art’s object —that is, to create a visual name, as a real name-sign for a real thing. (As W. Benjamin says, “The name is the analogue of the knowledge of the object in the object itself.”) Can we see it somewhere? Yes, it is seen in folk art, in icons, in many works among the great poets of painting (e.g. Fra Angelico, Greco, Caravaggio, Giacometti and others).

What really appalls me in illusionary realism and in Lucacs’ naïve statement is their utopian will for man’s consciousness’ final dominion over nature —and every utopia, i think you will agree, is nothing but violence.

I hope i managed to give to you an idea of what i had in mind.
You have my best wishes for your “journey”.

Monday, June 11, 2007

saying the impossible

"We define that the holy icons, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honor (timitiki proskynisis), but not of real worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature, ... which is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands."

The Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicea (787)

Sandro Botticelli, "Madonna of the Magnificat" (c.1483)

Let us take two portrayals of the Virgin Mary.

For the first let us use Botticelli's "Madonna of the Magnificat" as an example. We choose it not because it is somehow exceptional – it is that, widely admired at the time of its composition, it remains an impressive display of skill and composition – but because the themes by which the Virgin is portrayed are in many ways quite typical. It is not known who commissioned the piece, but whoever it may have been, they were extremely wealthy. To begin with, the panel is extremely large, and each of the characters is nearly life-sized. Given the expense of gold paint, artists were generally very sparing in its use. But here Botticelli uses it in extravagant fashion. Mary's robe and dress are very intricately embroidered in gold. The crown that is being lowered upon her head is likewise of a very delicate gold design. The halos are of course of gold paint, and there is gold embroidery on some the minor characters as well. Perhaps most amazingly, Botticelli even used gold paint to supplement and achieve the overall hair color that he desired the Virgin to have.

Likewise, Mary bears the marks of royalty. She is being crowned Queen of Heaven as she writes, by two angels (she is penning the Magnificat found in the gospel of Luke). There are a number of stars in the crown adapting one typical portrayal of the Queen of Heaven with stars at her feet in a manner more appropriate to the tondo. Her clothes are likewise rich and lush. The royal blue is almost a mandatory Marian color, as is the deep red dress underneath. The angels gather round her as attendants, two of them holding the book open for her as she writes, their own clothing testimony to the wealth of the one on whom they wait.

Now while it is true that these traits lead us to an appreciation of the wealth of the commissioner, to think that this is the only function would be not merely cynical, but to fundamentally misunderstand the message of the painting. Botticelli's Christendom is a great chain of being that stretches from the lowliest depths of creation up to the heights of the divine. In order to analogously express this the artist takes those things which are most beautiful, those things which signify power, royal authority and grace to humanity here below, and uses them to express to the benevolent rule of the Queen of Heaven (in this case). Thus, it is not only the picture itself which, in iconic fashion, directs the viewer beyond themselves toward a greater understanding of Mary, but in fact the viewer is likewise directed towards the aristocratic family who commissioned the painting; they are understood by all to analogously portray the divine through the beauty of their lives and the benevolence of their rule. Thus the magnificent expenditure is not merely a decadent display, but a recognition that their wealth is at the service of something that transcends them. The image of royal power rebounds back upon the commissioner to measure and judge them – are they a dim but adequate reflection of the power of God in their use of earthly power?

Chris Ofili, "The Holy Virgin Mary" (1996)

For our second example, let us examine Chris Ofili's controversial "Holy Virgin Mary".

Here the composition is extremely simple. Mary, who has seemingly African features (Ofili is himself a Roman Catholic of African origin), looks out at the viewer. She is not Botticelli's aristocrat. There is no finery here. Simple earthy tones are used. The painter used both paint and elephant feces to achieve the effect he wanted with Mary. The beings that seem to flutter around her like butterflies, what one would traditionally identify as cherubs, turn out to be the buttocks and genitalia of various black women, cut from pornographic magazines and various blaxploitation films.

Obviously Ofili is addressing his audience in a much different way than Botticelli. He does nothing to invoke wealth and power. Mary is very common. But assuming that Ofili's purpose was not simply to piss off Mayor Guiliani, what purpose does the inclusion of scatological and pornographic elements serve. Why portray something he calls holy by means of so-much-shit?

The fact is that we no longer live in Botticelli's world. While gold may still indicate power, the sources of power are no longer considered as benevolent as they were. They are no longer, even in theory, interested in the human good, nor the common good. The powers represented by gold, by big blue, are the market, governments and corporations: the instruments of capitalism. These are things that exert their control over the audience, penetrate every sector of their lives, and allow no escape. Capitalism remains, at best, neutral with respect to the human good, and judges things only as commodities, reducing everything that falls within its grasp (which is nothing less than everything). Thus Ofili turns to waste, literally to shit. His voice is speaks according to that which is not valued by capitalism - whether it is to feces or to those parts of humanity which society views as so-much-shit - because that is what capitalism does not value; it is that which at least has a chance of escaping capitalism's control. Shit becomes the way of negating the demonic influence of the culture industry which embraces every part of human life and denies humanity any escape. Only shit, in the closed world of capitalism, might represent something beyond capital, can represent the holy, because shit is what is given off and left behind after the consumer consumes.

Yet one is left to wonder if Ofili can accomplish his purpose. Does not this negation of the values of capitalism not really just affirm them by turning them on their head. The use of shit only has meaning because of the value-system it is negating. Thus the painting itself is tied to, and is worthless without, capitalism. It needs capitalism to have value and to mean anything. Has Ofili done anything more than show capitalism a way of valuing that which it had previously excreted as worthless, further increasing its range of influence and control? Is this not what Dalí foretold when he exposed Liberal-Capitalist society's unconscious in bluntly scatological terms. Ironically Ofili's painting ended up in the hands of a wealthy collector before it was lost in a fire. Ofili's problem is not unique; the problem is, how does one speak of the Beyond, of the divine, given that our language is always earth bound? Is it possible, or is capitalism's closure of life within its all encompassing web the truth of who we are?

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1968) [Acrylic on Paper]

Perhaps the best way to think of the relation between Botticelli and Ofili is in these linguistic terms. They are both attempts to speak about that which is holy. In the theological tradition there is a distinction made between positive speech about the holy (cataphatic language) and negative speech (apophatic language). Botticelli is clearly cataphatic language. Living in the middle of a Christendom which, according to its own self-understanding, attempts to direct the human person towards the divine, Botticelli not surprisingly uses those things that his culture values in order to express that impulse toward the holy. Ofili on the other hand resorts to an apophatic language, denying that the things which we value are holy at all. This is again, not surprising, since the culture in which Ofili speaks no longer sees a connection between its actions and the religious, which is granted a private and interior existence if it is affirmed at all.

But it is important to note, in order that BOTH forms of language not fall into idolatry, that the two forms must (and do) work together. It is not simply that every Botticelli needs Ofili's corrective (and vice versa), but that both elements are at work in both painters. The cataphatic and apophatic are correlates of one another which together attempt to open language onto a horizon which transcends it.

One should not be naive and think that Botticelli actually believes that his positive portrayal of the Virgin Mary in some way represents a realistic representation of her. He is well aware she is not a European noblewoman, nor was she someone who lived her life in wealth (nor let us be naive and think that Botticelli is not privileging a European, noble, Mary for the same reasons that he uses golds and blues). There is a negation, a falseness, that is built into the language itself that allows the viewer to see through, to see beyond what is merely said. In so doing, Botticelli not merely affirms but negates that which he speaks. As already mentioned, the commissioners, no less than the painting itself, can be at best, dim images of the holy towards which their eyes are turned.

Likewise, Ofili's negations cannot function without something to negate, something of value, something that is good: even if one realizes, in the negation that the things we value as good are nothing but shit, fallen and broken.

Trapped as we are within the prison-house of language, that language must be taken beyond its limits in order to express something beyond the prison. If there is to be hope for the future, we must crucify language, ignore Wittgenstein, and stake a claim on the Impossible – speak the unspeakable. This conjunction of the cataphatic and apophatic reminds us that we are not-yet what we desire to be, even though we do not yet know what it is that we desire. It reminds us not to settle for idols, but also to hold fast to hope.


Saturday, June 9, 2007

musharraf's enlightenment

Perhaps the lightbulb is finally starting to flicker and illuminate the situation for Musharraf, because he is in a predicament.  Whatever the case, the political isolation of Mush is clearly starting to take its toll.  The Washington Post is reporting that Musharraf lashed out at his allies in Parliament accusing them of leaving him standing alone as the media and others called for his resignation.  But it is hard to see who he has to blame for this isolation other than himself, as he has made a number of decisions of late that could only undermine his claim to legitimacy.

What he has failed to understand, one might argue is that the governance of the military rested upon a certain recognition among the people of Pakistan of his rule.  The enlightened tyrant is in a tenuous position if they wish to maintain both their enlightenment and their tyranny.  Perhaps even more than a ruler who achieves power through elections, the enlightened tyrant must embody the will of the people in significant ways - must be their representative.  An elected leader can make unpopular decisions and will likely be tolerated because the electorate knows that when the times comes, that leader will be out of a job.  But when the tyrant sweeps into power with claims of stabilizing and reinvigorating a country so that the country can continue on its way towards prosperity, an almost impossible balancing act is required.  This is the role that the Pakistani military has played on a number of occasions, and it is the situation which brought about Musharraf's rise to power.  But he can only hold control, or at least "enlightened" control, as long as the people view him as their representative - acting on their behalf.  Obviously, no representative is going to be able to achieve this on a universal scale, but because Musharraf assumed power, every person who is alienated by him and no longer recognizes him as acting in some general way for the good of the country will feel legitimacy in opposing him as an unabashed tyrant.

The dismissal of the CJP was a significant misstep on his part because it indicated an unwillingness on his part to hold himself accountable to standards of enlightened government.  In short the dismissal of the CJP was a strike against the foundations of Musharraf's own claims to legitimacy.  The recent restrictions of the free press brought further protests and disruptions, and the outraged voice of the Pakistani people was severe enough to be felt in Islamabad.  Again what the toleration (at a bare minimum) of a free press indicates is the government's willingness to hear voices than its own.  The willingness to allow an opposition press shows that one is dedicated to responding to the concerns of those who might disagree with you.  These are things an enlightened tyrant must be willing to do.

Finding himself alone (or more to the point, having isolated himself), Mush has rescinded the restrictions upon the free press (see the same WaPo article), but it is probably much too late to save himself at this juncture.  And so he has two options, it seems to me. he can tear his country apart by passing over from an enlightened tyrant to a brutal one and stamp the will of the military upon the country through harsh and repressive measures.  Let us hope this is not the path he chooses.  I genuinely believe this is not what is in the heart of Musharraf, nor his desire for his country.  In which case his other option is to let the planned elections go forward without his insistence that he continue to be ruler of the country.  Every day in which delays that decision brings him closer to being remembered as Musharraf the Brutal.


Friday, June 8, 2007

carnivals of the week

allow me to point your attention to a couple of carnivals that are linking to my little corner of the desert this week.

the 10th carnival of islam in the west is up over at aaminah's blog, and the 175th christian carnival is up over at rey's bible archive.


Thursday, June 7, 2007

the possibilities of realism, part 2: han-wu shen's daydreams of conformity

Some time ago, Alaleh Alamir, who is herself a painter, asked, in response to the post on Han-Wu Shen (see 'The Possibilities of Realism: a Case for the Art of Han-Wu Shen'), "Could hyper-realism in painting still make sense in the age of fotoshop and its like? realism can represent a technical challenge do the doer; I am not sure it brings anything more to the viewer or to world consciousness..."

One can also see, in the comments to the post on Han-Wu Shen, Vassilip, who has also worked in paint, making somewhat existentialist objections against realist painting and especially against the quote from Lukacs which serves as the epigraph for the post: I wonder, do you really believe that a realism in art (any realism) is possible? I mean, do you really believe that is possible to translate true experience (if ever we be fully able to be her masters) into icons? ...Can you not see how outrageously utopian is Lukacs’ statement (even in his upside-down Hegelian …Platonism)?"

As appears in my reply already to Vassilip, I categorically reject the idea that somehow Reason is unable to contain experience as philosophically absurd. This does not mean that rationality is whole or complete as yet, but it does mean that the breaks and gaps, the contradictions that are present within the Real, are experiences of Reason coming into contradiction with itself, not of Reason coming into contradiction with some Other which is uncontainable. This position serves as a good benchmark to judge the limits of my sympathies with typical expressions of (post-)Marxism, which is often quite extensive. But it seems to me that figures like Sartre and Adorno betray the dialectic when they contrast Reason with Matter. This makes matter into the Real which Reason can never fully comprehend (this is expressed in both as a kind of "priority of the object"). But certainly, to echo Hegel, if Reason can experience itself in contradiction with Matter, then it has somehow already seen beyond the supposed limit of Reason in order to experience itself as grinding against its own Other: it has transcended the supposed limit. As such the contradiction is transformed into a conflict between two moments of Reason itself. This leads to a position I have articulated on a number of occasions: namely that the Whole conditions everything we do and that we all act for the Whole in some form or another (see most recently 'Freedom', but also 'Dialectic' and, negotiating the relationship between Hegel and Adorno, 'The Struggle, Part 6').

Now, these philosophical issues do not by any means address the larger issues being raised here against realism, and I think the issues are very serious. I would agree that if all that is left to 'realism' is the demonstration of technique then it is ideologically dead, and has nothing more to contribute. And that is certainly the danger right now: a camera and foto-shop is a much more appropriate mode of production than oil and canvas. But if, somehow, realism can incorporate the lessons learned from 'modern art' then maybe it can have some future. I suggested that possibly Han-Wu Shen had tried to incorporate some of these lessons through his comparison of his work to industrial painting within the genre of decorative figure painting (it is admittedly very difficult to foresee a revival of historical figure painting). This would allow the genre within which he is working to transcend itself. To put it another way, it would allow abstract art to recover a certain amount of explicit narrative content without giving up its central truth: form and color.

That said, I have to admit that is not clear that Han-Wu Shen's project is truly sustainable, judging by his own work. He recently left China for the west coast of the United States and since that time has generated a number of 'decorative' paintings in the worst sense, which only seems to the feed the blindness of the art-consumer. I include three examples below:

Han-Wu Shen, "Reverie" (2004)

Han-Wu Shen, "Reflection (Reverie #2)" (2004)

Han-Wu Shen, "Daydream (Reverie #3)" (2004)

Here one quickly notices that the lack of content is present as much in the subject as in the over-all object itself. The reader is rendered as intellectually inert and mindless as are these (notably caucasian) women caught up in their various reveries. Finally, one can see immediate parallels with Dante Rossetti's own "Daydream" etc. I believe a similar critique can be leveled at Han-Wu Shen in these paintings as was leveled at Rossetti in an earlier post (see 'Daydreams of Conformity').


Wednesday, June 6, 2007


Patricia Larsen, "White Beach #4" (2005)

there are moments between the unconscious and waking where one falls off the edge of the map and drowns in a sea that you thought was only ink. someone had told you to be careful, as you walked to the edge: green lined by black. but it was after all, only a map. since when did lines on paper kill anyone?

i cannot count the dead.


Tuesday, June 5, 2007

freedom: a meditation on bonaventure's breviloquium v.1-3

Dale Frank, "(Goodnight Scrub)" 2003

there is a tendency to think of freedom as the ability to do what one wants, the autonomous exercise of one's individual will; the exercise of one's own power. but this seems incredibly problematic, for what is it that is ours? what do we have that is not a gift, down to our ability to act, and existence itself? in and of ourselves we are nothing, our existence was never ours to command, nor can we will our non-existence. we find ourselves absolutely dependent on a power beyond our mere individuality. and because we are nothing of ourselves, what is the operation of this autonomy which pretends to freedom except the will-to-nothing, the impossible desire for self-annihilation. our will no less than our existence is received from that which is beyond us: from our history, from culture and from that by which even they are.

to fight against this is not to assert one's freedom, but to deny one's reality within the Whole and thus become a slave to the forces one fights against. we delude ourselves that our freedom is somehow our's, a possession that belongs only to us. but this is never so. perhaps the mistake is understandable. my existence is out of my control; i find myself existent from beyond my will in an event that can only be, from my standpoint, fully gratuitous. but surely my actions are mine own. and indeed they involve my reason, my will: freedom. yet, it is no less true of my freedom than it is of my existence itself that it is received as a gift, for my freedom is a mode of my existence.

because we are, of ourselves, nothing, human freedom left to itself is only capable of nothing. it is only by way of that same gratuity by which we find ourselves to exist that we are able to act with meaning. individualism, egotism, self-will is a turn away from meaning toward nihilism and self-destruction. the very gratuity by which we are is also the guarantee of meaning-full action, the fact that we are caught up in something larger than ourselves. freedom is not, then, self-will, but bringing oneself into conformity and identification with the Whole by which we are free.


Monday, June 4, 2007

Theses on Orientalism and Islamophobia

1: Public opinion is held by no one, but is the opinion in which one becomes Other to oneself.

Steven Assael, Untitled [Superman] (2006)

2: It would seem that public opinion represents the consciousness of a group of people as they unite and impose their will upon some relevant authority, whether that authority be some government official of whatever rank, the local radio station or the bakery across the street. But this is not the case. Public opinion is not the expression of the power of a group, but the manifestation of the powerlessness of the self in the mass in which that self has become anonymous or abstract. It is the structure of a collective and therefore external identity.

3: That there is a connection between Orientalism and Islamophobia is not a surprising declaration. They are intertwined ways in which the Occident orients itself towards the Other as threat. But two things must be realized here.

3.1: First, every Other is, as such, a threat. This is not unique to the Oriental. They represent a comparable but separate desire with its own projects which is capable of appropriating resources and values which I may need against my will. Orientalism, then, represents the way in which the specific threat represented by a particular object, now called the Oriental, is thematized so that it might be put into practice.

3.1.example: This is different in content and scope, but comparable in its form to my relation to my neighbor, who is likewise an Other and a threat to me. Let us say that along the property line between my property and theirs are two rows, very close to one another, of blueberry bushes. The property line runs directly between these two rows of blueberry bushes. When my neighbor goes to cut the grass they are not able to ride the lawn mower directly between the two rows of bushes and so they always use the weedeater to tend to the blueberry bushes. One day, knowing that I have hurt my ankle, the neighbor trims around my bushes for me in an action of recognition and reciprocity between us. This allows me to complete my lawn care on the riding mower. But the next week, the neighbor does it again. And the next week again. Now there is confrontation and conflict regardless of the (let us say it already!) supposed good will of the neighbor, because if I allow the behavior to continue, at a certain point, in the eyes of the state of North Carolina, the property will pass over to my neighbor because they have cared for it (and we all have John Locke’s theory of property to thank for that). The bushes that were mine and which I used to make desserts and such to my great delight, will no longer be mine. The neighbor becomes in my eyes crafty and deceitful, a dissembler, who flatters me on the one hand while trying to steal from me on the other. The neighbor must be watched at all times because they are lazy and shiftless, not content to gain profit in a legitimate way, they would rather take what belongs to and has been nurtured by another, namely myself.

3.1.conclusion: Their separation from me and from my interests is made necessary by the nature of the object itself – my property – which constitutes them, by its very shape, as a threat, as an Other whose projects may interrupt my own, ultimately in a critical and perhaps even fatal way if things spiral too far out of hand. I need know NOTHING about my neighbor in order to know this. This is the truth of who they are in relation to the object in question, no matter what subjective characteristics they might possess. In other words it is objectively the truth: it is the truth carried in and constituted by the object itself. So we can summarize the first move of the object is that it constitutes the Other as Other and in this case as someone lazy, a liar, tricky and dissembling, greedy and lustful, etc., and I must adopt this attitude towards the Other if I am going to act in my own interests.

3.2: So the object makes the Other into the Other, but the truth of the matter is that the object also makes me into an Other.

3.2.1: Islamophobia, as the reflex of Orientalism, is not, first of all about the Oriental. It is about me. It describes the actions that I must take in order to maintain myself with my desires in the face of this Other, this Oriental, who is a threat. Once again, this is not a description of some subjective attitude on my part. It is not necessarily reflective of who I am in my personality, subjectivity, or selfhood, etc. It is who I am objectively, i.e., in relation to this object which demands maintenance and defense from me. My attitude and actions are given to me by the object as part and parcel of its character. This means that once again the attitude of Islamophobia is given to me as someone anonymous. Who I am does not matter other than the fact that I, like any other of a certain type, stand before this object in a particular way (as an American, and most probably as a White American). What matters is this generic identification which is indifferent to who I am individually. In other words, I receive my actions and attitudes as externalities. The I-who-acts could be anyone, any member of the genus to which I happen to find myself a part. I receive them as something Other than who I am; I am Other-than-I-am.

3.2.2: But we can take it one brief step further. To a certain extent MY Islamophobia is not even the attitude I hold indirectly, but the attitude I hold for Others, or, to put it otherwise, it is not the attitude I hold, but the attitude that I wish other members of my genus to hold. As an individual I need not hate the Oriental. I am capable of making individual judgments about good and bad Orientals. This is the source of that timeless but irrelevant defense in the face of my own racism: “I have Oriental friends; I cannot be an Islamophobe”. The problem is that the Oriental is a threat not only to me directly, or even more correctly, is not a threat at all to me directly, the Oriental is a threat to me-as-member-of-a-genus (e.g., American or Westerner or civilized humanity). The threat is not only to me but to me through all the other members of my genus. I am threatened through them and I am powerless to protect myself from the threat that occurs to me through them. Thus I need them to hold an attitude which will protect me from the Oriental-threat. I need them to defend me with all vigilance (the same holds true, by the way, for other members of my genus about me – they are threatened through me and I must maintain vigilance for them). Thus when I adopt the attitude of Islamophobia, as the attitude objectively required by the object (America, civilization, Christianity, etc.) I am not adopting it for myself as such but as the attitude of the others of my own genus to whom I offer myself as example.

3.2.example: Let us return to the much lower stakes of the owner of the blueberry bushes. My aggression against my neighbor is not based on my subjective attitude towards them, but out of my bushes’ demand that they be maintained by me if I am to use enjoy tarts in the summer. Moreover my own good will towards my neighbor is irrelevant because I must live the aggressive maintenance which the bushes require of me as an example to my neighbors so that they too will maintain their property and thus protect the common laws of property against any violation which would jeopardize mine in turn and in so doing expose me to harm and, if things were to spiral out of control, complete loss of property and death.

3.2.conclusion: Thus my phobic attitudes are doubly Other to me, or, better, are the attitudes-I-hold-as-Other-to-myself. They are the objectively demanded attitudes that all members of my genus must hold and which I hold as an example to the other members of my genus, due to my own impotence, as a reminder of the attitudes they must hold in order avoid exposing me.


new blog of the month:

Every month Theology Blogs, a Christian blog roll, showcases one of its blogs through the Blog of the Month. Having had the honor of being chosen as the Blog of the Month for the Month of May by Peter over at Coming Home, I now have the honor of choosing the Blog of the Month for June. So, in that capacity, I proudly present

To my mind this is one of the most interesting Roman Catholic blogs in existence, and as a Catholic myself I am going to indulge in a bit of nepotism. Michael explores a variety of themes that one would expect to see in someone so obviously influenced by Dorothy Day: political theology, social justice, the problem of violence, war, the state, etc, and he does this in a manner that invites discussion and contemplation, embodying the ethos of peace which he advocates. While I personally I have my own issues with the positions generally associated with the Catholic Worker, it is, at present, one of the few movements within American Catholicism that is resistant to identifying the faith with one loci or another of the culture of political liberalism, and for this it must not only be applauded but also warmly supported in broad areas of its social and ecclesial criticism.

By way of an introduction to Michael’s thought I draw the readers attention to two posts:

1. Memorial Day and the Religious Syncretism of the State

2. Howard Zinn on Families as “Pockets of Insurrection”

Friday, June 1, 2007

the possibilities of realism: a case for the art of han-wu shen

Great realism, therefore, does not portray an immediately obvious aspect of reality but one which is permanent and objectively more significant, namely man in the whole range of his relations to the real world, above all those that outlast mere fashion. Over and above that, it captures tendencies of development that only exist incipiently and so have not yet had the opportunity to unfold their entire human and social potential. To discern and give shape to such underground trends is the great historical mission of the true...avant-garde.

Georg Lukács, "Realism in the Balance" (1938)

David Camp, "Blue Maiden's Gaze" (2005)

Despite the work of groups like the Art Renewal Center to assert the need for contemporary Realism against the bankruptcy of modernist painting, it is not terribly clear that contemporary Realism is itself ideologically solvent. Instead, too much of contemporary realist painting has no real ambition beyond decorative art. Individual figures, most often female, quite often nude are placed in settings that do little to provide any real context or provide one with narrative clues. Instead of being timeless, they are ahistorical, like the capitalism to which they are capitulations. They are commodities provided for consumption to an audience that has itself lost any sense of history. Thus realism regresses back to the earliest moment of Enlightenment aesthetics: art as entertainment. It becomes a completely private event that does nothing to challenge the viewer with respect to the place and form of art, or their own relation to the means or mode of production of works of art or any other form of labor. The universal human experience, by which it provides its own self-justification, is nothing more than that of the isolated, alienated, objectified individual who is unable to relate or comprehend themselves as part of some larger whole, and so disapproves of any art that does more than provide an unspeakable feeling to be enjoyed. Thus realism, in the contemporary moment, most often presents itself as nothing but a mirror in which we view our own fate. It provokes a sentimental gaze which quiets any need for real thought so that one can save all one's energy for the labor which is needed to sustain the growth of capital, experienced as the real truth of nature.

Han-Wu Shen, "Mother and Child by the River" (2002)

It is not hard to understand why realism gradually fell out of fashion. It is more than fad that drives art. The Pre-Raphaelites were inspired, at least in part, by the truth of nature. They, unlike their contemporaries, often went outside to paint their landscapes directly, etc. Perhaps with some exaggeration, Ruskin claimed that Millais could spend the day working on a spot of canvas that was no larger than a large coin. And indeed, Millais in his Pre-Raphaelite days paints in exquisite detail. But as the mode of production changes, so does art. As photography becomes increasingly available, certainly Millais's painstaking style becomes inefficient, but realism itself begins to lose its purpose. What is it that painting can do that a camera can not? Gradually the answer became clearer, though Whistler had already grasped the idea. Painting is to color, what music is to sound. The real content of painting, as the need for 'realist' content is historically displaced, is the relation of colors: harmonies, dischords, chaos and order, lights and darks, etc.

This need not mean that there cannot be a legitimate and contemporary Realism. But any realism that wishes to be true, not merely to its object, but also to its form, must never forget that painting is not either glorified or simplified photography, just a photography is not film. When painting does this, the difference in labor is lost and the painting itself becomes an image of what it ought be. Photography is a different media, one that deals in image, one that is increasingly able to bring us images from every aspect of life, often staged to communicate the truth of what happened (even more than the truth of what happened would), and which compensates, for better/for worse, for its lack of depth by providing an ever increasing barrage of those images. The concrete effect is the degeneration of realist (figure) painting into decorative and portraiture forms. Only a decorative piece can contain the simplicity that might vaguely make its completion an efficient possibility relative to some photographic comparison, while portraiture lives on, again without any real context, as a sign of status. A true Realism then cannot forego the study of color in order to be true to its form; in this historical moment, the form is the content.

Han-Wu Shen, "Co-Workers" (2000)

One contemporary realist who has developed this idea is Han-Wu Shen. Han-Wu, in important ways, already shows a superior grasp of realism relative to many of his contemporaries in that his work as whole develops its own narrative intellectual content and makes demands upon the 'reader'. Despite the fact that many of his paintings, taken in isolation, have the same decorative effect as one sees in the realists about whom I have been complaining, taken as a corpus, what one has in Han-Wu Shen is, on the one hand, a fairly sustained look at the tension between the Communist ideals/goals for China and the life of the rural peasantry who are still extremely common in the Chinese countryside, and on the other, an examination of the tension between those same peasants and their urban peers (and these are not two completely unrelated tensions of course).

But in and of itself, one would have to conclude that this would not be enough. A photo-journalist could accomplish this, not only with more ease, but with more power and narrative sophistication, than could someone limited by the labor time invested in oil and canvas figure painting. Yet Han-Wu Shen indicates he is quite aware of this problem and that indeed the labor of painting is not simply or even primarily about the rendering of figures. Its truth is no longer strictly found in its narrative content. Content and form must coincide. By far his most popular urban subject is the blue-collar painter. Here Han-Wu meditates on the nature of the art itself, and asks his audience and himself, "What is painting?". These 'common' painters, these laborers, these are his fellows and their art is not so very far from his own. Painting is about color. About providing a harmony of colors (and when one does not, it is always the possibility of harmony that makes the disharmony striking and meaningful). If one will, the proletarian painters are, not surprisingly, the ones who show in their practice the truth in painting. They have always known, says Han-Wu, that the color is the thing! But this is itself a narrative content one might reply. This takes us one final step further into his paintings of the painters. They themselves become explorations of color, canvases for Jackson Pollock to envy. They are built up like a mosaic so that as one is taken into the painting one loses sight of the painters and are drawn to what they want you to see, the beautiful arrangement of color, questions of harmony and form that lead back out to an evaluation of the whole work and ultimately the world of those painters and the painter himself. It leads to questions of Truth.

If and only if contemporary Realism can grasp the ideas that are being explored by those such as Han-Wu Shen can it possibly compete with the varioius (post-)modernisms as a truly meaningful form of painting/art, and indeed if it learns its lessons well, it may have the power to unite form and content in a manner beyond that of more abstract explorations of color. Great works of art, Adorno tells us, are those that not merely grasp the spirit of their age, but do so in such a way that the contradictions of that age are likewise allowed to appear. By allowing an apparently decorative realism to speak beyond itself Han-Wu Shen has perhaps done just that.


Han-Wu Shen, "Young Red Guard" (c.2000)

The first painting by Han-Wu Shen I saw was "Pregnant Worker." I was overwhelmed and awed; overjoyed almost to the point of tears. Here was such a powerful display of color and harmony. Han-Wu had consumed and consummated abstract art right there in that one jacket, that one denim work coat. I was stunned: oranges and browns and rust, blues, greys and steel, and that one touch of pink that is so perfect for being so out of place. This was justice: no glamour shot, no objectified subject for me to consume; this was real. It was the most real painting I had could not think when. Rapture!

Han-Wu Shen, "Pregnant Worker" (2000)