Browsing Tag: postmodernism

    theory

    Review: Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1991)

    June 13, 2018

    Although Latour’s contentious book is a mere 145 pages long (in fact he calls it an essay), the notion that, after one reading, this fledgling researcher is qualified to review this for you feels like hubris. However, We Have Never Been Modern reads like a manifesto and, as such, the pages call for a response.

    Latour is known as a thinker within the canny niche known as science studies. It is a branch of enquiry which shares with anthropology an interest in human cultures and examines networks in order to grasp the impact, and limitations, of science. Put this way, science studies appears to be a somewhat marginal endeavour. But the arguments set out in this title, put the specialised discipline centre stage as Latour gets to grips with the differences between premodern societies and the modernism in which technology seems to have wrenched us away from nature. (That’s an oversimplification to be sure).

    Science studies appears to offer a way out of some dead ends which have arisen from modernist thinking and which lead to the playful branch of nihilism we call postmodernism. But the disenchantment of the world appears to be greatly exaggerated. In our attempts to be modern, we are wallowing in a certain self pity, a certain self-dramatisation. Says Latour:

    “Haven’t we shed enough tears over the disenchantment of the world? Haven’t we frightened ourselves enough with the poor European who is thrust into a cold soulless cosmos, wandering on an inert planet in a world devoid of meaning? Haven’t we shivered enough before the spectacle of the mechanized proletarian who is subject to the absolute domination of a mechanized capitalism and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, abandoned smack in the middle of language games, lost in cement and formica? Haven’t we felt sorry enough for the the consumer who leaves the driver’s seat of his car only to move to the sofa in the TV room where he is manipulated by the powers of the media and the postindustrialized society?! How do we love to wear the hairshirt of the absurd, and what even greater pleasure we take in postmodern nonsense.” Latour (1991) p.115

    Unsurprisingly this is one of the easiest passages in a thesis which, at times, is so topographical that only a scientistic diagram will do. Indeed Latour uses diagrams to map the relations between nature and society, different types of relativism, principles of asymmetry between nature and society, the origins of the divide between nature and society, and so on. If these visuals and the dogged investigative text have a single message, it might be this: the perceived divide between the West and the rest of the world comes down to a rupture brought about by revolutions in science. These changes in the Western self image, date back to Hobbes and Boyle and their experiments with the air pump in the 1660s. There is a scientistic culture originating with these findings, which now sets us apart from the world’s various ‘primitive’ or premodern peoples. So the circumstances around the creation of scientific revolutions are clearly a field which bears examination. This exploration of context is the vital activity of science studies.

    Latour’s book was written in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an event which bookends the whole essay and, according to the author, it reflects, “the conjoined failure of socialism and naturalism”(ibid, p.145), as if neither society nor nature can win out in the false opposition between these two terms. In this context, by way of conclusion he writes:

    “If we do not change the common dwelling, we shall not absorb in it the other cultures that we can no longer dominate, and we shall be forever incapable of accommodating in it the environment we can no longer control.” (ibid, p.145)

    This call for inclusivity and environmentalism has never been more relevant. But it strikes the reader that since 1989 there have been two more ruptures in the march of history: 9/11 and digital tech. It will be interesting to see if Latour’s later works get to grips with a social landscape that could not be guessed at when pundits, like Francis Fukuyama, were predicting the end of history in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Latour, it should be noted clearly doesn’t buy this. In fact this book attacks the notion of a “coherent temporal flow” (ibid, p141).

    Whatever your interests, this book is compelling and one of Latour’s strengths is to give his writings personal relevance. This is apparent from the opening line here: “On page 4 of my daily newspaper, I learn…” (ibid, p1). But since my own research interest is the work of paleolithic man, it opens vistas which previously one might not have previously dared consider. If we have never been modern, perhaps we have never been prehistoric. His is an essay, and a call to arms, that will bear re-reading and I hope to find new applications for it in the field of archaeology; a discipline growing ever more technologically advanced around the study of prehistoric caves.

    I’m keen to hear from anyone else who’s read Latour. If I’ve got anything wrong, do point it out. And if you have any observations or additional points of interest, the comments section is always open!

     

    paleolithic art

    Something for the wall: cave art on general sale

    April 15, 2015

    altamira-300x225

    While some consider we are now post-postmodern, it cannot be denied that we still live with many features of the condition identified by Jean-François Lyotard. My theory might be rusty, but it seems the internet has only heightened matters, and the age of simulacra is still very much with us. There’s no getting away from it, but if you still want to get beyond hyperrealities, you might well find yourself drawn to the art of the past. And if you develop a taste for this you might want to get right back to paleolithic art. What could be more authentic than the cave painting of a cave man?

    But rather than get back to life as it was perceived in the Pyrenees, say, 40,000 years ago, this piece will argue that we are locked out from raw and therefore real contact with cave art; though perhaps we always were. And we’ll see that, taking Altamira in Spain as our example, simulacra and fakery are of a holistic piece with the history of the caves both recent and in the deep past. There was nothing authentic about the world’s first recorded artists and this structure has found echoes in the reception of their work today.

    In his fascinating book, The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis-Williams lays out a number of theories about prehistoric art. And what comes across strongly is that whatever thoughts went through the modern brains of the artists, the original audiences at Lascaux, Chauvet, and indeed Altamira, must have experienced cave art in a way so different from gallery art today, we might not recognise it. Cave walls represented a gesamtskunstwerk and the pictures themselves were to be seen with flickering torchlight and possibly with music and dance. Art was a bona fide trip, but as we know from our own religion (modern science) altered states no longer offer privileged access to information about the world.

    So cave art and make believe evolved hand in hand. During the tens of millennia of its first hand reception it required a suspension of disbelief from both the artist and the rest of his or her clan. Now, it could be argued, there’s no faith without doubt, a fact just as true for even the most fundamental of our 21st century believers. Perhaps it is even doubt which provokes fundamentalism, but that is a digression. Lewis-Williams makes clear that the art of the caves of Western Europe was the result of vision questing. In short it was, via drugs, sensory deprivation or lack of oxygen, the result of self-induced hallucination. The shamen knew what they were doing and their status depended on it.

    Quite why and how cave art came to be characterised, across Europe, by many hundreds of recurring motifs, by the same species, by entopic marks, by hand prints, is a discussion for another time. It’s not a question that even Lewis-Williams clears up to the reader’s satsifaction. And the most likely theory, hunting magic, cannot account for the lack of Reindeer on the walls, especially at Lascaux where that prey’s bones are to be found in plentiful numbers. The most intriguing idea, to me, is that different species represent different clans and as a result cave art is not a confused rush of bovine and equine imagery but an epic art form, a history painting.   

    But surely that’s just another expression of the longing for an authentic, and in this case materialistic explanation. There never was, and never will be, an art of pure and partisan representation. That’s for the realm of propaganda and no one who has been touched by cave art could possibly allow for the possibility that the caves were some form of lecture. Just ask the archaeologist who spent some 20 minutes in tears when he first saw Lascaux. And just consider Picasso, who said of that cave: “We have learned nothing in 12,000 years”.

    We have, however, learned plenty. We have learned how to tease the cave experience out of the ground and into a wealth of picture books, cinema, postcards and posters. We have dematerialised the cave and allowed it to float through our daily lives in the form of jpeg galleries, mobile news stories and tourism sites. We have learned how to market the cave experience to a 21st century audience and how to generate revenue undreamt of by the men or women whose handiwork we have come to celebrate in this way.

    The caves have become portable, which is somewhat counter-intuitive when you consider them as the ultimate parietal art form. (It makes as little sense as that piece of street art soaked off the side of a pub wall and sold to a millionaire.) In Altamira, for example, you can even buy a chunk of the cave to take home and fix on your living room wall. Okay, it’s not actual rock taken from the original site. It is instead ceramic. And one of the bison has been scaled down and reproduced on a souvenir retailing for close to €100; somebody should notify the artist’s estate.

    A wall mounting like this has various advantages over a poster. Not only does it carry more literal and hence metaphorical weight, it is also in low relief which, as you may well know, is a key factor in the art of paleolithic man. Cave walls were not a blank canvas. Instead, they gave the artist a topology of dips and bumps, and the creative interpretation of these was the very beginnings of representation. The ceramic bison demonstrates how a ridge of rock can suggest the backbone of a 1000kg bison.

    We can verify this with a trip to Altamira itself. The lasting impression of this author was of an array of these bulls suspended low overhead and undulating like orange clouds. But there was nothing in the least bit authentic about this close contact with artistic origins. Two years ago, at the time I visited, the original cave at Altamira was closed. Tourists like myself were shepherded instead through Cueva II, a large partial replica to what we might otherwise have found underground.

    There are pros and cons for building replica caves, as indeed they have also done at Lascaux and Chauvet. Their chief function is to preserve the invaluable art found in the darkened chambers of a genuine cave. One supposes that replica caves are also more accessible, better lit, easier to provide interpretation. The cons are pretty self-evident too. You won’t get much atmosphere from a fibreglass ceiling. You won’t get the play of light and shade or the echo of subterranean water dripping, as Lewis Wiliams points out. And you won’t get that clammy cold feeling which can surely facilitate goosebumps and hair standing on the nape of your neck.

    So overall, replica caves are a necessary evil. But they structure the experience of primal art as a theme park visit rather than the real thing. If they do their job properly they are quintessential fakes. And the €100 tile which you pick up in the gift shop is therefore a fake of a fake. Hence we are totally cut adrift from just that strain of art which might have brought us closest to the essential role of art on this planet. The gift shop at Altamira says as much in its way as all the scholarly literature combined. It is the noisy rebuke to first hand research and understanding.

    But these layers of fakery go back in time themselves. At the time of its discovery, 1879, the whole of Altamira was considered a forgery. It was only the word of amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, against those of two French experts, Gabriel de Mortillet and Emile Cartailhac. The experts alleged that a contemporary artist was responsible. It seems that even face to face with the authentic and the real, we cannot always see it for what it is.

    So we vacillate between the moving, direct experience of those with access to the real caves and the gawping enjoyment of a tour round one of their replicas. We are moved because we expect to be and we love the replicas* because we love all make believe. In that sense we are not a million miles from the twin mindsets of the shamen and his public. And despite the lack of drumming and smoking lamps, this two speed model of reception might even hold true for the art with which we surround ourselves today. The simulacra and the simulacra makers have been around forever and show no sign of going away.

    *Unless we are Jonathan Jones, who by a wild coincidence has written about cave art today as well.

    painting

    Jasmine Surreal, Toy Division (2014)

    November 14, 2014

    2014-11-13 13_Fotor

    Joy Division plus cats equals instant clickbait for this blog. But that was probably never the intention of a Stuckist painter so surreal she calls herself Jasmine Surreal.

    In a colourful, cat-mad show at Trispace Gallery in South London, this work brings a sobriety to proceedings, a stony sense of the monumental, or indeed the memorial.

    But there is nothing too, too serious about the content, which replaces Ian Curtis and the rest of the band with toy cats. An inscription reads ‘Ian Cat-is’ . . . sacrilege, no?

    Well, yes and no. Surreal is a fan of felines and a fan of post punk bands from the North. The way she puts the two together is a loving tribute to both, painted ostensibly by her toy cat. Really.

    It seems unaware, a work of the unconscious. And her predilection for puns (“Love will Bear us apart” reads the caption for a pair of teddies), only amplifies the artist’s dream logic.

    But the remix is knowing. If you know the tragic story of Joy Division, you might appreciate the irony. And if you use the world wide web much, the juxtapositions won’t surprise you.

    Surreal puts together several elements. The foreground nods to an iconic photo by Anton Corbijn. The decorations are an extension of a one of the greatest ever sleeve designs, by Peter Saville.

    And the deity-like cat at the head of this composition is also based on a photo of Ian Curtis. I can’t find the shot in question, but there’s no mistaking the intensity.

    In a world where boy band members can wear t-shirts proclaiming their affection for Manchester’s most dour, we are very ready for this statement of gothic cuddliness.

    That’s not to mention the Lego men who cover She’s Lost Control, the Playmobile band who cover Transmission, the Joy Division oven gloves, nor the limited edition trainers.

    Epilepsy, suicide, nihilistic lyrics and a band name with fascist echoes: contemporary culture thrives off what seems least marketable. Fluffy it may be, but Toy Division is hard evidence of this.

    Jasmine Surreal can be seen at Trispace Gallery, London, until Saturday 15 2014.