Aesthetics of Contingency : Materialism, Evolution, Art
In order to effectively describe, reflect on, and engage a changing planet, the theoretical foundations of critical art discourse must shift at a fundamental level. Adherence to philosophical dualisms such as those between mind and matter, subject and object, material and immaterial often implicitly pervade and frame contemporary critical discussions but thereby distort the relationship between the human and the non-human.
In today’s world, where material issues such as the acidification of the oceans, the desertification of grasslands, or the effects of carbon in the atmosphere have become more urgent than ever, we find ourselves in a position where the validity of science and the very notion of truth is questioned, in politics, media, and the humanities. Critical art discourse in this regard stands on unsure footing: largely adopting a positivist position on science—believing it as long as it works—but also unwilling to commit fully to a mind-independent materialism.
Weary of the specter of reductivism and suspicious of any claims on the status of truth as more than a regime constructed by vested interests, critical theory today finds itself obsessively self-examining its own hidden motivations and relations of power, meanwhile remaining largely impotent in inspiring belief in, much less addressing, the pressing material issues of our times such as climate change.
Only through a repositioning of the human in relation to the non-human, by first expanding the notion of materiality, and second, by situating subjectivity within the contextual framework of evolution, can we break free from false dualisms while retaining, and even expanding, the truth of the ethical.
In his book Bad New Days, critic Hal Foster surveys the state of critical art discourse since the 2000s and describes it as in a state of fatigue caused by a ceaseless struggle to uncover the hidden signs of capital—having discovered them everywhere including within the search itself. Stuck in a self-decrying feedback loop, criticism has itself been critiqued and charged with fetishizing the critique by philosophers such as Bruno Latour and Jaques Rancière. Foster presents this as a moment of crisis for critical art, a deflationary period for criticism which he calls the “post-critical” for which he identifies no clear way forward.Hal Foster, “Post-Critical?” Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency (London: Verso, 2015), 115–24.
According to Foster, the foundations of critical discourse to this day are still largely dominated by Freud and Marx (specifically via Lacan, Barthes, and Foucault.) Central to these discourses is the concept of the subject. A subject is a unique point of view or consciousness in opposition to the concept of the object which is everything else. This dualism between subject and object is the foundational binary from which the others, mind vs. body, human vs. non-human, nature vs. culture, material vs. immaterial, unfold. These binaries however don’t correspond to reality, and their supposition distorts the perception of causal relations.
Foster mentions the attempts at vitalizing the agency of the object by Latour and Jane Bennett as a possible solution to the “post-critical”: a strain of thinking in which the object is anthropomorphized and seen as having a certain kind agency. However, Foster remains unconvinced because of his own—self-admittedly “protestant at root”Foster, Bad New Days, 176.—“resistance to any operation whereby human constructs (God, the internet, an artwork) are projected above us and granted an agency of their own.”Foster, Bad New Days, 121 In this way, Foster is unable to reject the subject/object dualism out of ethical concerns: that objects are ultimately not equal to humans and shouldn't be treated as such.
However, the notion of the anthropomorphization of the object ultimately misses the point of how to redefine the relationship between the human and the non-human in the first place. The necessary step in dismantling the divide between subject and object is not to grant objects their own undeserved agency or consciousness and thereby raise them to the same ethical status as humans. (Rocks obviously shouldn’t be thought of as having the same rights and agency as people.) But instead, the necessary step is to contextualize subjectivity, consciousness, and ethics as arising from within the material.
As an artist, one inevitably develops relationships with various materials. Learning how they behave and what they are capable of expressing and articulating. How much tension certain types of wood or metal or plastics can take before they break, fold, twist, or burn. Owing largely to the writings by Manuel DeLandaManuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2002). , I see materiality very broadly defined as the tendency and capacity of any system (the terms material, system, and object are used interchangeably and I see them as more or less synonymous in my own practice). The materiality of reality is expressed in the characteristic ways in which systems of matter, energy, or information behave. All systems, from a lump of clay to a conceptual art piece, have characteristic tendencies and capacities in their causal interactions with the world and thereby express their own materiality. How wet clay or soap bubbles or cold butter express their material-ness in this world lies in their tendencies to behave in specific ways under specific conditions, such as when clay becomes hard as it is heated, whereas plastic melts. Under this expanded notion of materiality, things we traditionally have labeled as “immaterial” are understood to have a certain materiality after all, because, like any system, they have characteristic tendencies and capacities as expressed in their internal dynamics and causal relations with the world. Thereby things like a novel, a poem, or an algorithm can also possess and express a real materiality, as reflected in the effects they have on the world.
One can think of the history of art as a process by which artists have explored the expressive capacities of an ever-expanding set of materials, from ochre to software, from enamel to pop culture. However, as any artist knows, working with any material is always a negotiation between the priorities of the artist and the proclivities of the material itself. Knots, tensions, and thresholds constrain and characterize the morphological space of possibilities that any material can assume. In other words, matter takes an active role in the creation of its own form. It is never the artist alone that gives form to a material, but the dialogue between artist and the material. I think it is this recognition of the independence of matter that makes any good artist an implicit materialist to some degree.
In this sense, the “dematerialization of art” in the 60s and 70s was not a dematerialization at all. In fact, this characterization is unfortunate in its continued implied dualism. Rather, artists became interested in diverse new classes of emergent materials, such as scores and choreographies, social interactions, or language itself, each with its own characteristic dynamics and causal affects.
Central to understanding this kind of meta-materialismWhile perhaps also not a perfectly suitable term, I prefer “meta-materialism” over the term “post-internet” in describing my and my colleague’s work as the latter term falsely portrays this type of work to be exclusively about the internet or technology as a subject matter., is the concept of emergence. Emergence is the process by which smaller things interact to create larger things with unique properties that are different from their components. Classic examples of emergent systems are ant colonies, slime molds, and flocks of birds. Ants, for example, are able to display complex organized behavior at the level of the colony that is not reducible to the individual ant. They explore and exploit their environments in ways no individual ant is able to direct or even to be aware of. But the combined effect of individual ants engaging in simple local behavior, like following pheromone trails, emerges into the complex and agile behavior of the colony.
Even the properties of physical materials are emergent. For example, a single water molecule cannot be said to be either solid, liquid, or gas. Only the emergent behavior of the interactions between populations of molecules can give water, steel, clay, or any stuff for that matter, its materiality.Emergence is a fundamental organizing principle of reality itself, inherent to the nature of numbers and patterns. Emergent effects can even occur in computer simulations as demonstrated in the John Conway’s famous mathematical game of patterns, The Game of Life, a simple algorithmic cellular automata game where local rules of relation either turn on or off squares in a grid. These simple rules and patterns can combine to create complex emergent behavior, where emergent patterned phenomena can be further combined into new levels of emergent behavior. The Game of Life can even simulate the necessary logical components of a computer itself like memory and and/or gates, thereby making The Game of Life a Universal Turing Machine—a computer able to simulate any other classical computer.
It is in this same way that we can think of language and culture as sets of nested emergent phenomena. When describing the ontological status of a fictional character through a materialist theory of language, DeLanda situates such objects as existing upon multiple layers of emergent systems, at the base of which there are “pulses of air shaped with our tongues and palates, or physical inscriptions. Above this basic layer ... another one develops through a progressive differentiation of simple monolithic (non-recombinable) words, a level of semantic content. Above this a level of syntax emerges (as the differentiated words become recombinable).... Once these emergent layers are in place, we can use them to create yet another level: stories, true or fictional, with characters whose identity is specified using syntax and semantics.”Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman, The Rise of Realism (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 15.
Having established the emergent materiality of any system, one can see how the diverse conceptual materials employed in contemporary art are still nonetheless palettes of real materials with unique tendencies and capacities, behaviors and causal powers. However, not only are emergent systems of various kinds explored by artists, but the artwork itself, since the 2000s or so, has also increasingly been sited in the relational, in the connections between and around the viewers, the works, and the artists. In essence, the relational turn in art was an explicit exploration of the emergent assemblage formed by an artwork and the viewer.Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002). The works are emergent social objects where the tendencies and capacities of human minds and bodies become component parts of the system. Of course, it can also be argued that the mind of the viewer has always implicitly been a necessary component of any artwork, and that ever since the first paintings of mammoths and mastodons on cave walls, artists have been exploiting the characteristic tendencies and capacities of the mind to interpret shapes and recognize depictions.
In order to convincingly replace the subject/object binary, one must situate the becoming of subjectivity itself within the material. That is, one should look to understand how consciousness arises from the matter of our brains and bodies, and secondly to situate the brain’s capacity to think, in the process by which it arose in the first place, namely our evolutionary history.
The subject of psychoanalysis and critical theory on the other hand is disembodied, a pure, monolithic, thinking mind, transcendentally separate from the body. But this concept of the subject cannot explain the effects on consciousness that things like traumatic brain injuries or strokes have, sometimes disabling very specific mental capacities or memories. It also says nothing about our relationship to other living beings, how consciousness also arises in other organisms only qualitatively different due to differing neural and sensual hardware, but nonetheless just as real. By deconstructing the subject/object duality one continues a decentering of the human in the tradition of Copernicus and Galileo.
But what exactly is the materiality of mind? What structures the tendencies and capacities of consciousness? The subject of psychoanalysis is based on a tabula rasa view of human behavior, a mind born with a blank slate whose structure is determined entirely by experience, parenting, socialization, language acquisition, etc. (known as the Standard Social Sciences Model).9 But this conception of the mind is being displaced by the discoveries of diverse discourses such as neurobiology, cognitive and evolutionary psychology, primatology, and anthropology. These discoveries reveal a richer and more empirical understanding of consciousness, one that is always embodied within the hardware of specifically evolved neural architectures.
The primary contribution of cognitive and evolutionary psychology to a theory of subjectivity comes not from an insistence that all behavior has adaptive function, but rather in integrating a computational theory of the mind. This new approach to understanding the mind recognizes the brain as an information processing organ. Of course, the mind is not like a computer in every regard but nonetheless shares the fundamental characteristic of processing information (via neurons rather than muscle cells per se.) According to evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, “evolutionary psychology is based on the recognition that the human brain consists of a large collection of functionally specialized computational devices that evolved to solve the adaptive problems regularly encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Because humans share a universal evolved architecture, all ordinary individuals reliably develop a distinctively human set of preferences, motives, shared conceptual frameworks, emotion programs, content-specific reasoning procedures, and specialized interpretation systems—programs that operate beneath the surface of expressed cultural variability, and whose designs constitute a precise definition of human nature.” Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, “Center for Evolutionary Psychology at UCSB.” www.cep.ucsb.edu/cep.html.
In other words, the mind comes preloaded with specific, evolved mental modules, or tendencies and capacities for the ways in which it is able to think and experience the world. These biases reflect the experience of the nearly 84,000 generations of the genus Homo that has lived before the industrial revolution, as well as the mere 7 generations since.
The humanities and especially the arts have had an uneasy relationship with the topic of evolution. A distrust of evolutionary thinking in general and in evolutionary psychology specifically comes from several unfortunate misconceptions.Anselm Franke and Ana Teixeira Pinto, “Post-Political, Post-Critical, Post-Internet,” Open! (September 8, 2016). First, the idea that the core of evolution is competition, therefore naturalizing the darker human impulses like greed and racism, and secondly, that framing the human through the lens of biology is reductive, missing the essence of what it is to be human.Steven Pinker, “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” New Republic (August 7, 2013). But these fears are ultimately grounded in misunderstandings of real science and the true creative force and mystery of what it is discovering about evolution and the mind. Personally, I find this really unfortunate since evolution is after all the one and only creative force of the universe. It is the closest thing there is evidence for, to something we could call a creator. Rather than a god, it is a process. A beautiful fractal process of infinite differentiation. In the expanded sense of cosmic evolution, it is the process behind all processes.
Darwin identified the twin mechanisms of natural selection and sexual selection as responsible for the evolution of the forms of plants and animals. However, today we know that other processes are involved as well, including random non-adaptive genetic drift, as well as the morphogenetic constraints of the materials that plant and animal bodies are made from. For example, almost all plants on Earth follow the same generic leaf growth pattern (with a typical divergence angle of 137.5°) determined by the emergent properties of the materials of the plant cells, including collagen and other proteins.Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity (London: Phoenix, 1997).
Competition is merely one mode of interaction between organisms. The idea that competition lies at the heart of evolution and is therefore unethical stems from another unfortunate misunderstanding. The idea of the survival of the fittest is a mischaracterization of the real mechanisms of evolution. Rather than being a hierarchy in which organisms compete to be optimal or dominant, fitness is more like an ever-shifting dynamic landscape with temporary peaks and valleys of local fitness conditions.Frank J Poelwijk and al, “Empirical fitness landscapes reveal accessible evolutionary paths” Nature 445 (January 25, 2005). Rather than existing in opposition to one another, organisms are co-originating and connected in complex causal relations. Competition is merely one mode of interaction between organisms, one of several phase states of interactions according to game theory,Charles C. Cowden, “Game Theory, Evolutionary Stable Strategies and the Evolution of Biological Interactions,” Nature Education Knowledge (2012). just like the varying phase states of physical materials such as solid, liquid, or gas. Instead, the fundamental dynamic of cosmic evolution lies in the underlying contingency of reality. Contingency is at once that which is unforeseen or random as well as that which is inevitable. The accidental contingencies of mutation as well as the contingent constraints of the environment that shape the bodies of plants, animals, quasars, and protons. The heart of evolution is not competition, but the interrelatedness of all life, and at a cosmic level, the inescapable change and transformation of all things.
Although fundamentally motivated by ethical concerns like economic and social equality for all, critical theory’s primary mode of reflection today seems to describe a reality in a perpetual state of struggle or precarity, a “condition” in which the sickness is capitalism, neoliberalism, or the “hegemonic modalities” of power that govern our lives for their own benefit. These powers are sometimes spoken of as if they have a consciousness or agency of their own, with its own wants, desires, and causal powers, as when speaking of “what capitalism wants.” Signs and “symptoms” of these hidden forces are obsessively deciphered and revealed. But it should come as no surprise that the “diagnosis” of society as in a state of perpetual sickness comes partly through the prism of what was initially an early twentieth century medical discourse. Although the world is far from perfect, and political consciousness is as important today as it has ever been, perhaps sickness is not the most appropriate metaphor for the perennial struggles of living beings. When was there ever a time without suffering? Perhaps it is not appropriate to anthropomorphize emergent social systems either, thinking of them as possessing human-like agency. In fact, the tendency to falsely assign agency to the world is an evolved cognitive bias itself.Michael Shermer, “Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World,” Scientific American (January 2009). By recognizing them as impersonal emergent social systems perhaps we can be more effective in changing them.
By integrating the information processing theory of the mind, we can begin to see how such concepts as commodity fetishism, disembodied subjects, repressive drives, and castration fears are themselves abstracted reifications of evolved mental and ethical capacities of the social ape species Homo sapiens and may therefore not be the most accurate ways of describing what is really going on. A repositioning and de-centering of the human will enable us to move away from the critical theory of suspicion and sickness while not abandoning the truth of fundamental ethical concerns.
By situating the human within the concrete historical becoming of our evolutionary context and history, we can recognize how even the altruistic values of critical art discourse are themselves contingently evolved manifestations of our social primate nature. We can also recognize how values are not fixed and how we can take an active role in their future formation. However, in no way does this malleability degrade the status of the truth of ethics. To the contrary, by dismantling the human/nature binary, we can expand the ethical domain to integrate the real subjectivity and inherent value of non-human organisms. While perhaps not possessing language, culture, or consciousness in the same ways that humans do, plants, animals, and other organisms are nonetheless just as real. By believing in the real, uncorrelated from the subject, mind, language, or culture, one is free to believe in the truth of the world and the truth of the other.
This idea of the materiality of the mind and consequently the cognitive foundations of culture, led to my own fascination with the forms and aesthetics of advertising and popular culture. What interested me were the ubiquitous and repeated patterns in the conventions of popular images. Having myself grown up between multiple cultures (German, Chinese/Mongolian, Native American/US American), what fascinated me the most were the patterns that remained invariable across different cultures. Faces, foods, ritualized symmetries, animals, and glossy, splashing liquids. My hunch was that the strange ubiquity of such image patterns could not be explained purely ideologically, and further research into cognitive and evolutionary psychology, consumer marketing psychology, and neuroscience led me to discover that in fact they were largely determined by the evolved cognitive peculiarities of the mind.Dan Sperber and L. A. Hirschfield, “The Cognitive Foundations of Cultural Stability and Diversity,” Trends in Cognitive Science 8, no. 1 (January 2004), 40–46. In fact, images of faces, foods, and liquids are special perceptual categories for human brains, they are recognized faster than other objects, the recognition comes online earlier in child development, and they even have dedicated neural hardware structures to process them. Utilizing DeLanda’s explanation of the concept of the attractor and the materiality of culture, I imagined the underlying dynamics determining the possibility space of images. This thinking led to several of my early series: “Selection Display”, “Axe Effect”, and the “Mainstream (Transformers)” series.
This is also what led to the fascination with branding in my work. Brands are a class of emergent material objects as well. They express themselves through an ecosystem of signifiers and function as they do because of the nature of human consciousness—not ideology. They are selected to work with the limited resources of cognitive attention and activate various memory networks in order to associate and create new meanings. The brand PEACE was my first exploration into the brand as material. In this case, I was specifically interested in how the associative meanings of signifiers are malleable and ultimately empty, in the Taoist sense that is, lacking any innate identity. I was interested in how multiple signs, the word “peace,” the Taoist Taiji (and initially, the Christian cross and the Islamic star and crescent), could be combined and thereby transmute the meaning of its component signs into a new emergent object.
My forays into branding and commercial imagery have also been my way to directly challenge the established lens of Freudo-Marxian critical theory. A common (mis-) interpretation of my practice derives from this traditional dualistic framing. Any collapse of the nature/culture divide is viewed with suspicion due to the previously discussed pervasive mischaracterizations of evolutionary scienceBrian Droitcour, “The Perils of Post-Internet Art,” Art in America (November 2014). , and because of the use of commercial aesthetics my work is often misidentified as belonging to the genres of capitalist mimesis and immanent critique, in which the “signs of capital” are mimicked and pushed to exacerbate the contradictions of the “neoliberal order”.Ibid.
Viewing the world through an ideological filter in which everything is also interpreted as an ideological sign seriously delimits the full range of possible meanings that matter and life have to offer. This mode of interpretation, a product of western thought whose lineage can be traced back to the Christianity of Descartes, as employed today, results in a form of stereotyping of images, not to mention a culture of suspicion. Seeing the objects and images that populate our world first and foremost as possessing inherent allegiances, either belonging to the good side of the “critical” or else to the dark side of capitalism, neoliberalism, etc. But this reactionary mode of analysis fails to integrate the knowledge of what Buddhism and Taoism discovered long ago: that signs and objects do not possess any inherent, essential identity.“Śūnyatā.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Sept. 2017. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Śūnyatā. Not everything is a “symptomatic cypher” of capitalism, not even brands and logos if one can believe it.
Continuing my interest in branding and the cognitive foundations of culture, I have rebranded PEACE into New Peace. The aim of this project is to use the tools and insights of branding and marketing (as practices of cognitive interface) to imagine a new form of non-dualistic and secular spirituality. One in which the infinite creativity of matter itself is worshipped. Ultimately, I see the ingrained and ancient modalities of religions as being the biggest obstacle to humans believing in and assuming their proper role in the tapestry of the living and material world. It is time for the world of critical art to shed its naiveties about the separation between humans and nature. A shift that must take place for us to properly reflect on and effectively intervene in the material realities of our planet.
This article was initially published in Stream 04 - The Paradoxes of the living in November 2017.