It is shameful whenever the philosopher, theorist, or artist bow to the exigencies of the “pragmatic”. When I evoke pragmatism here I am not referring to the philosophical school known as pragmatism, but rather to the term “pragmatism” as it functions in contemporary party politics in the United States. This variant of pragmatism celebrates the necessity of “being reasonable”, compromise, surrender, or bowing to what is possible within the current constraints of the situation. This sort of pragmatist makes the argument that “we can only get x number of votes from Congress so we shouldn’t even bother having the debate, publicly making the argument, or pushing for this particular cause.”
In Freedom Evolves Dennett argues that the true opposition is not between determinism and free will, but rather between those who believe they are free and those who do not believe they are free. Those who believe they are free are, he argues, free. Those who do not believe they are free are not free. This is such a strange claim as the reader is left to wonder why whether or not we believe we are free has any bearing on whether we are free. Yet the point is that if we believe it is possible to do or accomplish something we will actively pursue producing that change, whereas if we believe that it is impossible for us to do or accomplish something we won’t pursue it. If I believe that there is something about my nature that prevents me from learning guitar, I will never pursue learning guitar. If I believe my fellow is impossible to persuade, I will never try to persuade him. The pragmatist is someone who is not free. Because they believe the parameters of situations are already defined and determined they make no effort to pursue certain things.
In this regard, the vocation of the philosopher, artist, and theorist is to occupy the place of the impossible, the Real, the unreasonable. The place of the philosopher, artist, and theorist is to render the possible available, refusing the constraints of the situation. All sorts of gymnastics are involved in the athleticism of these figures. One aspect of this gymnastics consists in the activity of critique. Critique painstakingly reveals the contingency of existing relations and forms of organization. It reveals that things can be otherwise and that these ways of relating and organizing life are but one way of organizing life. In short, critique shows that the relations underlying a form of life or organization are external, despite the fact that they appear inevitable, obvious, natural, or the best way of doing things. Sometimes critique will take the form of historicism or ethnography, showing that things have been done differently in other times and places, that others do things differently; thereby undermining the seeming naturalness and obviousness, for example, of the nuclear family or heteronormativity or commodity capitalism. Critical archivists and cosmo-ethnographers will retrieve all sorts of missed possibilities and latent opportunities lurking here and there on dusty shelves. Sometimes this will even consist in a mere etymological athleticism that opens up entirely new opportunities of thought as in the case of Heidegger’s fanciful etymological inventions. Sometimes critique will consist in disclosing the foundations an organization appeals to in legitimating as being based on an illegitimate and indefensible myth. At other times it will consist in showing a bubbling anarchy beneath apparently natural couplings, as Freud showed in his early work when revealing the polymorphous, androgynous (or polydrogenous?) and prosthetic vocation of the libido in excess of all heteronormative Victorian couplings.
In the domain of art critique will often take place in opening us perceptually and affectively up to entirely different worlds such as the world as experienced by a quantum particle, a photon of light (the Impressionists?), an electric eel. In cinema the camera frees us from the constraints of our “being-in-the-world” and “lived experience”, bringing us before durations far greater and smaller than our own, allowing us to see the world from any perspective whatever. There will be novels depicted from the standpoint of apes. Kafka will tell of spindles of thread and dancing mice. Sometimes art will critique simply by bringing us before vibrations of color and light, inverted arrangements like sculptures that block in a room with plaster and then take out all the contents like chairs, tables, etc, or by exploring various patterns of pure sound and their combinations. All of this will have the effect of denaturalizing our life world, our lived experience, and so on, opening us up to alternative possibilities and revealing the contingency of these arrangements. Few things were more shameful than the last century’s treatment of “everydayness” and “ordinary language” as authorities where philosophy, art, and theory are concerned. These are not tribunals, but are rather chains to be escaped.
At other times art will allow us to simply see that which we cannot. Picasso will capture something of the horror of war in Guernica. Frances Madeson will let us sense the absurdity of life and bureaucracy, and those invisible communities that allow us to survive. Jacob Russell will show us the mute existence of a tree. Through subtraction, de-suture from the hyper-relationality of the world, art will produce a little bit of eternity that can travel throughout the world.
Yet the other dimension of the gymnastics and atheleticism of philosophy, art, and theory will consist in the gradual construction of alternative possible worlds. Kant will help us to imagine a kingdom of ends. Marx will help us to imagine the possibility of a world without alienation and exploitation. Latour and Stengers will help us to imagine collectives of humans and nonhumans. Artists will help us to imagine alternative forms of love and relating as in the case of China Miéville in his Bas-Lag novels, or as in the case of Kim Stanley Robinson in his Mars novels, where we are shown people heroically striving to create a new constitution that includes provisions for economic justice, the rights of planets themselves, rocks, ravines, and ways of life. Jane Bennett will help us to see how garbage heaps, power lines, and the fish we eat are part of our collectives. Art, philosophy, and theory will help us to imagine ways of doing things differently.
However, for art, philosophy, and theory to do such things they must render possibilities material. Possibilities must become real things that can circulate throughout the world. In What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari write,
The young man will smile on the canvas for as long as the canvas lasts. Blood throbs under the skin of this woman’s face, the wind shakes a branch, a group of men prepare to leave. In a novel or a film, the young man will stop smiling, but he will start to smile again when we turn to this page or that moment. Art preserves, and it is the only thing in the world that is preserved. It preserves and is preserved in itself (quid juris?), although actually it lasts no longer than its support and materials– stone, canvas, chemical color, and so on (quid facti?). The young girl maintains the pose that she has had for five thousand years, a gesture that no longer depends on whoever made it. The air still has the turbulence, the gust of wind, and the light that it had that day last year, and it no longer depends on whoever was breathing it that morning. (163)
The Simondonians like to say that the being of a term is the being of a relation and to talk of the fields of relations in which the entity is individuated, yet the greatness of art is precisely that it escapes all its relations, that it escapes its context, and manages to circulate. This is why the new historicists so deeply betray the essence and nature of art when they seek to halt their deterritorializations by reterritorializing them on the context or Simondonian field of individuation in which they were produced. Part of the greatness of the Iliad is that it is not just for or of the Greeks. Were we to discover the secret of Mona Lisa’s smile we would probably find that it was provoked by something utterly banal and uninteresting. Yet in deterritorializing her smile from Mona Lisa herself, her circumstances, her historical context, da Vinci manages to capture something of the smile as such that is capable of resonating among Aztecs, Greeks, crass Americans, Indonesians, etc., and not just Florentines. That frozen moment now takes on the power to produce infinite effects as it slips in and out of endless contexts. Art produces a rogue object attached to no particular assemblage or regime of attraction, tracing aleatory adventures producing completely unpredictable and incalculable effects. It is by subtraction– a subtraction premised on the externality of relations and the withdrawal of objects –that art, philosophy, and theory works, not hyper-relationality.
The eternity of the work has two halves. On the one hand, in subtracting the moment, the event, or the element from its fields or relations, the work captures a bit of the essence of that which it freezes; or, at least, it makes a bid to capture that essence. On the other hand, in the materiality of the work– paint on campus, inscription on a page, 0’s and 1’s on a digital recorder, and so on –the work creates an iterable material support that makes a wager for eternity and that allows the work to exceed all relations that would seek to shackle it, rendering it possible to fall into any set of relations. And this is how possibilities are rendered available and material. Through inscription they are preserved in the world and made able to appear. It is the vocation of the philosopher, artist, and theorist to make a little of the possible material while militantly resisting the constraints of all contextualities.