For those who know me it will come as no surprise that I champion yet another book by Mark C Taylor. His work has been a constant source of inspration, reflection and a grounding/sounding board for my own thinking for quite some time. His latest book is another timely piece of work dealing with the impact of technology.
Many critics of digital media and the like tend to be a bit heavy-handed for me, and while I appreciate the critiques made, they often seem bathed in a negativity that almost overwhelms the arguments being made. Taylor is far from that kind of writer. Undoubtedly this book, which deals with the way we seem to be overwhelmed by the technologies we have embraced, is meant to be read as a warning, but the way in which he brings his argument to paper places the issue in a broader context which saves it from being polemical.
His argument is quite simple-the technoligies which we thought would make life easier etc have turned out to have trapped us in a race we can't win. Taylor is a bricoleur, bringing together big ideas from philosophy, religion, sociology, art, fashion and finance, to frame his argument. He paints a picture of global capitalism and shows how our commitment to economic growth and cxompetition have created a toxic environment.
Using digital language and metaphor he invites a 'reprogramming' of life. He is not arguing against technology as much as for us and for a different kind of understanding and engagement with technoligies of all kinds.
"We have art in order not to die from the truth." Nietzsche
I'm currently teaching a class on Art, Cinema and Theology. It's built around nine boigraphic films about artists and is focused on exploring the various ways in which representation plays out--how cinema represents artists, how artsists represent themselves and the world and how theology intersects, critiques and learns form these other meaning-making systems.
It's not an art history class, but there is something of a linear schema, largely defined by the films available. Some of the fims are not great--The Agony and The Ecstasy being one, but Love is the Devil a bio-pic about Francis Bacon is one of my favourite films all the way around.
It is fairly easy to identify the way cinema presents artists--anti-establishment, isolated, people not bothered by contemporary morals or ideals, driven by a something-calling, vocation, muse that sets them apart from the rest of society. Film has created an amazingly solid icon of the artist has a certain type of person-its a reductionist stereotype that sits firmly in the Western psyche and seems to be the 'go-to' figure we often appeal to when we discuss what 'artists are like.'
The interesting stuff is at all the intersections, when we discuss an artists work, quote from their writings and consider their lives in terms of its historicity and context, their influences and the socio-cultural and sometimes religio-cultural dynamics that shaped their world.
Picasso said that art involves the 'elimination of the unnecessary,' something I think is needful in theology, people carry a lot of unnecessary theological baggage around and I personally think a more stripped-down way of thinking theologically is a far better way to go.
So far we have explored Michelangelo and the reconfiguring of human form, particulalry the male,and how the Humanist movement and the subsequent Mannerist school that developed out of that thinking gave rise to new interpreations of representations of the body...nothing to discuss theologically there of course!!:) And then we've considered the development of genre painting in the post-Reformation era-the rise of landscape, portraiture, still life etc. that was borne out of that era. We looked at the Dutch Golden Age via Vermeer and Girl with a Pearl Earring, and notions of light and darkness, technologies of painting and everyday life and spirituality in Protestant circles of the 17th century---it's been good so far, we'll see how things shake out as we keep going.
What does your brain look like? If you talk to a neuro-scientist you'd get one perspective, a biologist would give you another. Douglas Coupland would offer a personal aesthetic view of his own brain. Coupland is probably best known for his writing but art has always been a part of his creative arsenal. For a retrospective he created a room filled with 5,000 objects he collected over 20 years and carefully arranged in a masterwork called The Brain. Coupland is a collector, maybe even a bit of an obsessive one and the articles he put together aren't random, they are carefully curated ojects that offer insight in to his personality, likes, desires and drives. The layout of the items was designed to represent the contents and organization of Coupland's physical brain, not that the viewer would necessarily know that. Humour is a big part of it-with pieces like Seat of Consciousness (“the elusive site of self-reflexive awareness that scientists have yet to pinpoint”).
Coupland has been writing a lot about the effect of technology the “new neural reality,” and the technology that “relentlessly colonizes the planet and our brains.” One of Coupland's big themes is that the Internet has deleted the idea that our lives our made up of stories and instead is now made up of tasks and that we need to consider how we are to restructure our lives in light of that. He also said the nostalgia for the 20th century brain won't do you any good--couldn't agree more.
I went to see Daniel Lanois play live this past Sunday at the El Rey. Joined by longtime musician friends, Jim Wilson on bass and the incomparable Brian Blade on drums, Lanois took us on a boundary-pushing musical journey, replacing instruments with studio technolgy to create soundscapes. It was ambient music with heavy grooves and sonic landscapes. Lanois is using studio technology as instrumentation, 'pushing the form' as he said at the close of the set to find new sounds and musical horizons. It was pretty amazing to say the least. There were some cool visuals on a screen to give a bit more context and visual stimulation as the on-stage presence was fairly inert-sort of like a dj set, but the music didn't need any help. Lanois has helped shape a lot of the music we hear-he is a searcher and seeker of new sounds and directions and has influenced people across the musical spectrum (Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl's music show on HBO pays homage to Lanois in its most recent LA episode).
Speaking of influencers, Nothing Has Changed, is a newly mastered collection of some of David Bowie's songs. It spans a wide portion of his career (from 1964-2014!!), and throws in a couple of new songs for good measure. It's three cds worth of amazing music--is there anyone like Bowie really? I don't think so and if you don't know bowie then you don't know music!
And then there's Marilyn Manson. I'm not kidding, just when you think you've got him pegged as a late 90s industrial-goth provocateur whose sell-by date has surely run out, he releases a very catchy and equally depressing song bout failed relationships in advance of an upcoming album. Who knew that Manson could find a groove? Well Third Day of a Seven Day Binge, smokes along. It's a free downlaod on his website, more than worth it if you ask me.
Hillman Curtis died of colon cancer a couple of years back but his website remains alive and is filled with interesting stuff from his creative life. I really enjoyed his series of short films featuring figures from the creative world.
Earlier in the summer I was walking through Soho and encountered Lawrence Weiner sitting on a bench and we had a chat for a little while. Weiner's work, particularly his use of text has been a real inspiration for a long time and Curtis gives a glimpse into a remarkable man. You can plan to spend a while enjoying Curtis' unique take on things.
Maurizio Cattelan is surely one of the funniest, cynical and canny artists around. Whether it is the provocation of La Nona ora (the ninth hour) a sculpture in which Pope john Paul has been hit by a meteorite or the hyperreal images found in TOILETPAPER magazine, he fills the world with images that grab your attention and make you think differently about the world.
Now comes a documentary...or does there? Noone is really sure if there is a documentary about the artist or whether this is yet another performance piece, but there is a trailer and you can find it here.
I started thinking more critically about the selfie, last time I was teaching on theology and media culture. The Institute of Network Cultures has a small book you can download by Brooke Wendt entitled, The Allure of the Selfie. Given the pervasiveness of selfies and their culture-shaping contributions to body image/focus/obsession, it might be a worthwhile read for many. It's less than 60 pages so not going to be too big of a commitment but will be beneficial if you are thinking about this stuff.
I've been teaching a class on theology and media, focusing primarily on television and digital media, exploring the acceleration of change and the theological implications of living mediated lives. As I come to this class every eighteen months or so I am aware of how quickly things shift and change. We now find ourselves in the era of 'cloud' technology, the digitality of the present/future seems to be this strange notion of the cloud-our information, our lives, disappearing into internet vapour and no longer living on our computers.
Surely one of the more interesting dynamics of digital living is the growing disconnect with materiality when it comes to our stuff--our music library is made up of files rather than tape or vinyl, our photos are digital, our letters and communications are e-mail, text, tweets-seldom tangible, mediated via machines--mobile devices, laptops, ipads etc. And then there is the cloud-we are intensely suspicious of this sudden appearing, because like much of digital technology it appears to us in a finished form and we are caught up in it before we even know what's really go on and our thoughts about it are usually retroactive-it's only when it works against us rather than for us that we realize its dark side--the recent leak of celebrity nude pics, hacked from the cloud basically--you might delete something from your phone, but it's not gone, nothing is ever 'gone', it's stored in the cloud which surrounds us, consumes, subsumes us in its vaporous nothingness.
Now it seems to me that there is something of a connect here with some forms of theological reflection. There is a history of 'cloud theology,' be it works, like The Cloude of Unknowyng, the anonymous Middle-English book on contemplative prayer, or Nichols Cusa's 'cloud of impossibility' which addresses the concept of learned ignorance (not-knowing to put it in contemporary terms perhaps), a sort of return to Socratic inquiry.
Cloud computing places everything within our reach but removes it from our grasp-we have to access it through a process, it doesn't live on our devices, they become tools of access.
The interesting thing about cloud technology is that it’s not a place or location, it’s a highway system. Look at the Google data center in the image above-it's all tubes and pipes. The Cloud contains loads of information and files, but that reality only articulates itself when I go to my computer, launch a programme and resume work on something at the point I left it on my ipad earlier. And we are not really supposed to be thinking about this very much, even though every digital outlet from Apple to Google to Amazon is championing its benefits, we’re simply meant to realize that we can have our data where we need it, when we need it.
Socrates declared that "All I know is that I know nothing," which was the inspiration for Cusa's move to learned ignorance, the premise being that what we know is contingent and we cannot know things precisely because what we know of anything is through relations. For Cusa, the cloud is defined by blindness, darkness and ignorance (an apt metaphor it seems to me for our understanding of the digital cloud), and it is this cloud that we must deal with when we consider the sacred--the darkness itself, if you like, is illuminating.
The cloud confronts us with contradictions-both the theological cloud of unknowing and the digital cloud---we don't know enough but we are in relation, and we need to reflect on our not-knowing, our ignorance rather than jump to conclusions and simplistic answers.
In his wonderful book, Nudities, Giorgio Agamben writes,
"The ways in which we do not know things are just as important (and perhaps even more important) as the ways in which we know them...it is possible, in fact, that the way in which we are able to be ignorant is precisely what defines the rank of what we are able to know and that the articulation of a zone of non-knowledge is the condition and at the same time the touchstone of all our knowledge...The act of living is, in this sense, the capacity to keep ourselves in harmonious relationship with what escapes us."
It's virtually impossible not to enter the digital cloud these days, unless one opts out of all connectivities related to the Internet, but avoidance and resistance has seldom seemed the right move to me, and when it comes to digitality I think it is not possible, better then to take some time to frame our ignorance. The same would be true for me when it comes to issues of the sacred-a learned ignorance, and informed not-knowing might just be the pathway not only to fresh understandings but also out of old cul-de-sacs.
I've seen four movies of late--none of them have been particularly enjoyable experiences, which is not to say that they are not good films, but with all of them I left the theatre with a singular unease, which must mean something.
I saw Gone Girl in London when my brother and I were trying to hide out from a rain storm. I didn't read the book, nor did I have any idea what the film was about. I liked it a little, it was a sad and sorry tale if you ask me, playing on cultural fears about secrets, abuse, and the games we play as humans taken to extremes.
Gone Girl is David Fincher's highest grossing movie to date. I like Fincher, he is always dark and stylish-things I enjoy. The film plays with American notions of gender roles and, by initiating this story of a murder/disappearance tale, kicks them off balance and plays with all our fears about the secret lives of those we live with.
It's dark and violent and a bit nuts. The book apparently teels the tale from each of the couple's perspectives, a trope the film avoids mostly, presenting it instead as a more traditional procedural drama, but one with unexpected twists and turns.
I didn't like it. Why? don't know, just didn't-i found it a little too slick and clinical for its own good.
I did like the music.
BIRDMAN: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
Alejandro Innaritu's latest film catapaults Michael Keaton back into the cultural spotlight in this film about the vicissitudes of fame, celebrity and social media. Ketaon plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who has been stereotyped by the superhero role he played 22 years before and is now trying to break that perception and limitation by starring in a stage play of Raymond chandler's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Like many of Innaritu's films, there is a surreal feel to everything. Essentially a critique of celebrity-obsession, the film is witty, biting and dark--melancholy ooozes from everywhere, and Thomson's desperate efforts to break out of the box that fame has put him in is tragic. Keaton blazes, and deserves all the accolades he is receiving. But again, I left the theatre with a sadness wrapped around me--the world feels fucked when you step out of a film like this.
I lasted about 20 minutes. I shouldn't have gone, I never do well with war movies--Saving Private Ryan, Born on the 4th of July etc., all traumatize me a little. This focus on the human story, it feels so right, but I can't help but feel that deep down, it's actually a bit manipulative and has a kind of pornographic voyeuristic element to the human aspect of war and violence. Don't get me wrong, I doubt that the film over-estimates the graphic and horrific nature of conflict, it probably doesn't do enough, but something troubles me quite deeply about this 'realism' and I suspect that it is not 'real' but hyperreal in a sense--I have to think about it a little.
But as I said, I left after 20 minutes because I couldn't take the graphic nature of the onscreen stuff---wish I had a stronger stomach but it made me so nervous and agitated that I decided it was best for me to leave.
Weird, that's what I felt about this film from Dan Gilroy. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a man living on the fringes of society, who lucks into a job as an amateur cameraman using his eye and his nerve to create a niche for himslef with a local news station as the go-to guy for crime and violence. The tv station has low ratings and the night-producer, desperate to keep her job, becomes a willing accomplice to Blooms sadistic and callously artful capturing of human depravity. She is, in some way, his mirror--desperation and being on the edge mark them both. Gyllenhaal plays Bloom to full and complete strangeness--bug-eyed and seemingly devoid of any human feeling or emotion, he self-educates via the Internet and turns himself into a twisted sort of self-help psychopath, all the while pushing the limits of what is acceptable fare to be shown on the morning news.
There is a critique of news--that it creates and promotes fearfulness, particualrly among the rich white communities and ignores or uses everyone else. This is a relentless and exacting film-there are no wasted scenes or words or characters-everything is minimalized to play on the anxiety of both the central characters and we, the viewer. And again, I left the theatre with a deep sense of unease.
So what have I learned? Well, I think this unease, which all these films left me with, reflects a tone in cinema today, an expression of the inner-despair and concern many have about the state of affairs for all of us living in the early decades of the 21st century. whether it's technology, social media, the media and news services, crime, violence or war, we are continually and constantly being reminded that all is not well and we would do well not to forget that and to pay more attention. None of these films seem to offer up any alternative or any answer, and I am not saying they should, but the critique is seldom strong enough in my mind--if that is the intention of any of these films and filmmakers-I wonder about that, but I don't generally trust the remedies that cinema provides-the usually present a binary opposition which I think is very unhelpful.
I forgot to mention Denzel washington's latest, The equalizer, a remake of a UK TV series, violent, gory and forgettable.
In the foundations of color, vision sees the
Universe; in the foundations of the Universe, it
sees man; in the foundations of man, it sees
The Earth, the World, the Universe have to do
with man: the Earth a little, the World a lot, the
Universe passionately. The Universe is the inner
passion for the Remote.
Man works the Earth, lives in the World, thinks
according to the Universe.
The Earth is man’s ground, the World his
neighbor, the Universe his secret.
The Earth is the strait through which passes the
light of the World; it is the tongue made of sand
and water upon which, standing, man strides
against the World.
The World is everything too vast and too narrow
for the Earth, and again too narrow for the
Man gropes around the World and the World
floats in the Universe unable to touch its borders.
I've been reading a lot of the philosopher Simon Critchley lately and via him stumbled across Eugene Thacker and his marvellous book, In the Dust of this Planet: The Horrors of Philosophy, which, in my mind, is a must-read (not least for any fan of HBO's True Detective-it was a foundational text for the writer of the series).
Last year Thacker and some others hosted an event at Recess Arts in NYC-a four night exploration of laruelle's four-stanza poem, Du Noir Univers (dark nights of the universe). Here is one of the audio recordings of the sessions--really worth sitting down and giving the rest of them a listen.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are featured on Austin City Limits tonight--appropos perhaps that they are airing the show on the Day of the Dead because Cave's music might form the perfect context for that particular celebration. This version of Stagger Lee not surprisingly isn't going to be on the televised version. Cave has become one of my favourite live performers over the year and I hear this is regarded as one of the best live performances on ACL.