Sunday, March 16, 2014

Miguel Gutierrez and the mind-body problem

After my first encounter with Miguel Gutierrez's performance art I had to talk about his uniqueness to many around me. I spoke about his courage, about taking actual risks in stage acts and risks in interacting with the audience. And much of what he did was in line with a wonderful statement that I found printed in the program. I extolled it as the best artist's statement I have ever read. Without claim to accuracy I recall that he spoke about the function of art and of performance art specifically. Answering the question why exactly do we want to show ourselves and act in front of the audience - or among the audience or other performers. He gave a brilliant answer: that we want to have a witness to our experience. A witness that reflects to us not our own image but the truth of our experience, validates the experience.

In the latest show, titled "and lose the name of action", - I saw it in Seattle at OnTheBoards March 9, 2014 - he battles the problem of the body being dominated by formal and authoritative systems of knowledge. Miguel apparently responds to the impression made by a close encounter with modern medicine where his own father was treated for a serious illness. Scientists, technologist doctors, patients and perhaps transiently angelic beings populate the stage. The doctors display the mastery that comes from technology based on scientific knowledge, passion for knowledge and dispassionate analytic attitude toward its effects in human world. The angelic beings seem to pray to the absent and unnamed gods. Patients throw fits of indignation about being only objects and just objects and that their rescue depends on their existence being treated on the level of existence of objects of science. Everybody joins in the debate about the nature of experience. Do I respond to heat because it is my experience of heat or because science has defined heat as an objective phenomenon that our brain (an object) is capable of responding to? Miguel's piece contains a very clever dramatization of the so-called mind-body problem. Of course it remains unresolved. The scientists debating it end their discussions with mutual "fuck-you's".

The reason for this impasse is that the patient is unwilling to take charge of his experience and say that he/she is the authority. The patient - that is most of us - will hand himself/herself over to the systems of knowledge asking for salvation. What the system will deliver is a body fragmented and converted into a set of objects that it can manipulate. To defend ourselves from that we must claim the ownership of our subjective life. This is something Miguel has not yet asserted in this show but an inkling of that notion was present in his early days manifesto with the excellent artist statement.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

America - everyone's imaginary love

There is a lot of love and admiration for America outside of its borders. At the same time Americans in the country are full of dissatisfaction and even outright loathing for the state of the union and its vicious actions abroad. Americans think that they are powerless to change the situation internally and ambivalent about the value of cultures and societal arrangements of foreign countries. They admire the "communities" maintained by materially deprived peoples and are shocked by the rules that restrain individual liberties there.

Lacan has implied in his lectures, quite derisively, that America is sustained by a culture of the imaginary. That individuals dream up their dreams and work to realize them without quite bothering to internalize the meaning of their life and career. You become what you may in the course of pursuing your dream - this is the idea. In other cultures it behooves the individual to validate the course of his career with the society, with the roots where he comes from. His life becomes a sort of service to the society that brought him up, a sort of repaying the debt of being immersed in the Other's view of the world. So that is why when people outside of this country dream their dream is American.

I saw a film a few days ago. A new Belgian film by Felix van Groeningen titled: "The broken circle breakdown", released just late last year 2013. It is about a Belgian Dutch speaking couple involved in a bluegrass band that literally worships American culture - mostly folk and country culture - and their conflict around the death of their daughter who succumbs to leukemia at the age of 7. The film is an homage to the American imaginary way of life even when the main hero rants from the stage against Bush and the religious right who restricted the support for stem cell research. That technology and scientific progress could have saved their daughter or other children in the future. He worships the American country culture with bluegrass music being its pinnacle - yet cannot admit that it expresses the imaginary and naive field of belief in supernatural beings who control our lives. That belief can make its way all the way up the chain of government. He would prefer science to have the control of our lives. Here his woman partner protests - she claim the right to believe whatever she wants (and accords the same right to the naive Americans - so much cultivated in the life of the band). She chooses to unconsciously believe the lies told to her dying daughter about the star that she becomes - a star that shines its rays into the eyes of beings in the future. She believes that the image of the raven will deter the birds from crashing into the glass of the veranda. She blames herself and her partner for the death of her daughter - predicating their faults on scientific theories of hygiene of pregnancy and child rearing. He is closer to the scientific naivete when he tells his dying daughter the story of the star's light surviving its lifespan and giving of light to observers far off in the future. That story soothes the child's dying moment but is totally imaginary. The contradictions in the minds of the adults between what they imagine about themselves and the world and what they are compelled to know and rationally profess are quite apparent and explode in emotional outbursts. The woman commits suicide. While her comatose body is disconnected from life support her husband's band plays a bluegrass "breakdown" tune as a funerary dirge.

Another night I attended an eclectic performance that included two modern art pieces and one traditional presentation of Indian classical dance. It is amazing how much the emotional life and the interactions that observe those are formalized in language. The gesture of dance speaks of what lives in the imagination and expresses itself as emotions. However, the latter are captured in language. In the case of that performance in the language of dance - in gesture. It is anti-expressionistic - the body is harnessed by language.

The solo female dancer ended her performance with an homage to America. She presented the song "God bless America" (or another of those songs of patriotic devotion) in Indian classical dance. It was very interesting and beautiful. However, I felt a certain uneasiness and even horror in the American audience that the performer, an immigrant, did not expect to arouse. The motive of the performer was to express the love and admiration for America and the benefits of its civilization. Americans, the natives of this land foremost, not necessarily "native" Americans - do not feel that admiration and do not have a sense of what this country offers to the world and how much it is loved for it. I felt uneasy too - about the uneasiness of the "born-here" Americans, their cringing at someone from the outside imagining something about them that they do not dare imagine themselves anymore.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

To my left-liberal friends

Having lived in the US since the time of Reagan I feel nowadays - in the end of 2013 - an eery sense of foreboding. Something will happen, something on a scale not seen since the wars of the 20th century. Not a "consciousness shift" that would guarantee peace and prosperity and life everafter in the harmony with nature which will gently bestow upon us her splendid gifts. Not material violence and destruction. I feel something else that is invisibly hollowing out the soul of Americans. That void is increasing and a point is approaching when a great cry will be uttered: "Oh my god, we have lost our soul." While we enjoy our amusements, our soul is being destroyed by the monster of the "lesser evil." We are supporting the lesser evil as it were not evil and as if we were not responsible for its actions.

Why is it a "lesser evil" - if it kills every day scores of innocents abroad under the guise of the war on terror? Was Reagan's expansion of the US nuclear weapons program a "greater" evil - even when those weapons did not kill a single person? The "lesser" weapons of Obama kill many more.

And if you think that this is a "lesser" evil - is not opposing it the right thing to do? Or at least exerting political pressure and a pressure of public opinion so that this evil we elected to live with is diminished every day?

I think we all know that the fight to reduce even the "lesser" of evils is the right thing to do but yet we do not do it. Why? Oh why!!!

Because we have bought into the party of evil - the lesser one that it may be. We have something to gain by cooperating and by not obstructing the path of power. We want to hold on to power ourselves, to the portion of power that we released into the hands of our government. We want minor aspects of power, aspects of it that we could have held ourselves by our industrious efforts, but we preferred to become subsidiaries of a greater power, a power luckily deemed to still be a lesser evil.

We wanted to be safe: from the risk of illness, from an occasional wacko with a gun, extremely safe on an airplane trip, safe in a steady job and prosperous retirement, be assured that our food and drugs are superbly safe too. To arrive at these ends we call on the coercive hand of the government to weigh in. As if we could not achieve most of those safeties and comforts through our own free and peaceful arrangements - or our own sovereign powers if need be. We want to be nannied and coddled - preferably by a "lesser evil" power.

The dissonance between allowing ourselves to be cared for by a ruthless power of the state and our own aspirations of creating our own life in honesty and peace will be soon felt. This hollowing of our soul will be felt mostly when we lose the sovereignty of our own power and will only ask for the subsidiary powers as servile subjects of the state. When we try to shake off the servility we will be punished. That is the nature of the "lesser evil". Do you want that?

Do you want to condone any sort of policy - violent, militaristic, criminal - to protect the government because you already bought goods and services from it? Did this man sell you stuff and now you are protecting him to ensure the delivery?

Obama giving State of the Union address in January 2014

If we settle for the "lesser evil" do we want to do something to make it even less evil? How do we do that? And if we don't then aren't we assuring that the evil we settled for will grow to become greater. Maybe in a short time it will get worse than the one we initially had rejected. Or maybe while settled and coddled by the lesser evil the vexation will lead us, irrationally perhaps, to lurch to electing the "greater evil" that will step in inheriting all the powers of the former.

The impending moment for America is a moment of revolting shame, disgust with oneself and self-hatred. Comfortable, self-satisfied we will suddenly realize what price we have paid. Not unlike in Nazi Germany where atrocities and even genocide were justified by the need of the people for safety and comfort - for the "Lebensraum". Here in America we call it American interests abroad, which we are free to defend with lethal force. So said our president to the United Nations last fall. And here we do not prosecute the Jews, but revile corporations that operate for the abominable profit, forgetting conveniently that we ask the government to collude with the largest of them in service of some public interest, and in service of benefits that we have commissioned.

My liberal friends! Please understand that you are asking for your own disempowering. You want the individual to give up some of their power, that is liberty and material means, in favour of the state (typically the US federal government) and then ask the government to return to you benefits obtained in transferring the power into the hands of large corporations. That is how you become serfs and vassals of the state and of the corporation.