Auto-Didacticus Philosophicus

Four years ago I decided to take matters (my life, my thoughts, my world?) in my own hand. Frustrated with unanswered questions, irrational belief and the fear of averages, I found my way to the library at Haifa University, Israel. A library in which half of the books were in languages I could not read. But in which the philosophy bookshelves held some real treasures.

Four years later, I still don’t read Arabic, Russian or Hebrew. But I continue drawing on the books I read in that period. My own crash course in philosophy proved very fruitful. And especially as I read them without any prejudices (mind you, I didn’t even know the difference between analytic and continental philosophy), without any greater scheme in mind… I could form my own thoughts. I could decide who to befriend and who to shun.

In the year that followed this first visit to that library I continued this self-education. In February 2010 this free-floating was brought to a stop, when I started a master in (political) philosophy, when teachers started to fill my time with required reading list. But that first year and the books I choose – why did I pick these specific books? – continue to be the basis of all my present thought.

I started with reading Michel Foucault‘s “The Order of Things”. Still my favourite philosophical musing, perhaps also because it was the first book I ever read to make me realise there are things that are bigger than anything I can ever understand. My notes from that time are priceless to me. My trying to figure out these strange words like ‘episteme’ remind me of this struggle that brought me back to life at a time I was really in one of the worst places I’ve ever been. Needless to say, the notion of ‘episteme’ is so dear to me, that it’s pretty much the topic of my PhD now…

I continued reading all of Nietzsche, and a biography on Nietzsche by Walter Kaufman. Again, I don’t know why. But it appealed to me, as it still does. It has become part of me, this notion of the death of the church, the need to face what one is despite human structures… “One should only speak where one cannot remain silent, and only speak of what one has conquered—the rest is all chatter, “literature,” bad breeding.” (Opening lines of “Human, all too human”)

And I read Kojéve‘s Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Karl Jasper‘s “Origin and Goal of History”. Martin Buber‘s “I and Thou”.

Although I still linger within these texts, there is also much more. I’ve made more friends I could have ever realised, Sartre, Heidegger and Arendt amongst others. Lately Badiou and Benjamin should be added to the list. But I am still young, and it’s never too late to make new friends…

Fortunately, now at the European Graduate School, I’m having the opportunity to float within texts while finding my own voice…  And to meet living thinking friends, from all over the world…

All Worldly Knowledge – Venice Biennale 2013 – Kan Xuan

The problem one faces when visiting any museum, let alone one that covers a whole city, let alone one that focusses on ‘all worldly knowledge’, is the sheer amount of impressions one has to deal with. Often you end up perusing through the lot of it, glancing over the area in front of you and tracing superficially what is presented. Of course you can also specifically look for certain works that you choose, but somehow it is also very tempting to try and get a glimpse of this ‘all worldly knowledge’.

And when you walk through it, head full of images and thoughts, emotions and boredom running through your veins, it could just happen that you stumble upon something that keeps your intention for half an hour or more, and which you know will stay with you for a while longer. Sometimes this does not happen. And sometimes it happens more than once in one day. If you’re lucky. (Or not, for who would want to be influenced by a work of art these days?)

There were several installations that were of particular interest to me. I will focus on one of them here, namely the installation by Kan Xuan, China. It was part of the Arsenale presentation and not part of any national pavilion. Instead, the curator choose this particular artwork ‘Millet Mounds’ (2012).

Part of installation at Venice Biennale 2013
Part of installation at Venice Biennale 2013

In it, Xuan showed hundred of nicely built frames beside each other in two rows, in which photos were shown as if in stop-motion, each sequence of maybe even a hundred photos having its own atmosphere and its own environment. On the wall next to it, a map was drawn for each frame, showing the trajectory of the artist while taking the pictures. Each frame, together with its map, could thus be seen as a memory of space and time. Each combining the two, in a very subjective manner. It looked as it each frame with the hundred or more photographs had their own filter, their own colour, their own emotion attached. But each frame, was arranged within an enourmous line of frames, showing the linearity of memory storage.

One of the things I ask myself when presented with a work of art that attracts my eyes, which keep me wondering and looking until my head because swallowed up by the vastness of it, is precisely why this work appeals to me. And when the answer to this question comes too easily, I am somehow put of by it, and forget about the work of art as soon as I can.

This obviously did not happen to me this time. At first I was fascinated by the colours and the rapid movement of the images. Focussing on one frame, what could I distill? Was there a story enfolded in front of my eyes? What did the artist want me to see? Why were these barren landscapes, that somehow all resembled each other in some way, enough to let me think they were taken at least in the same country, so interesting? I still don’t know.

The second wonderment that I felt, was when I tried to follow Elie During’s experiment. He had shown us in his seminar at the European Graduate School just a few days before, that it is possible to listen or to see different sounds or images at the same time. That is, not merely hearing or seeing the harmony between different tonal lines or visual images, but seeing two separate things, simultaneously.

This is what I tried with this artwork, and which lend itself extremely well for it. Not only was the whole artwork based on the idea of positioning oneself in space and time, as the maps on the wall indicated. Also the sheer amount of frames and space-time sequence of moments made this an extremely bewildering experience. I found it was possible to see about four separate instances of spacetime simultaneously. The result of this was not one field of vision, one experience of time, but a fourfold of space and time.

In the end, the impression that stays with me when I visit any museum is what attracted me in this artwork. And instead of it being a negative emotion, the overload of spacetime, images as well as experiences of time, made this such a beautiful experience. I could easily imagine myself being one of these frames, documenting all the images I had seen and would see that day visiting the Venice Biennale 2013. Besides me, the people visiting the same space, strangers and friends alike, all occupy their own frame. But when these frames could be put together somehow, without judgement or destinction, we would end up with what the biennale really consists of: subjectified spacetimes.

When you would want to present ‘all worldly knowledge’, this would be the only way to do so; By showing simultaneous spacetimes of all possible perspectives.

Reflecting on EGS part 1

Being in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, to attend the seminars and evening lectures of people that are on the inside of things, is not very easy when you are in the periphery. It feels as you are thrown around between realizing something enormous that is probably going to change your life, and before you’re able to fully grasp it, along comes someone who either makes you want to die or kill. Of course, metaphorically.

There seems to be only one bibliography, one set of books that everybody passes around, that partly I’ve actually read, and partially I’ve never even heard of. There seems to be mostly Jewish thinkers. There seems to be no heterosexual female thinkers. There seems to be thoughts that get rephrased every two hours, minutes, seconds. There seem to be extremely ignorant people. There seems to be the fact that either I am naive or I will be able to write books until I die. There seems to be the continued recurrence of the same words, creating a living genealogy walking around in bodily form.

Most precious are the meetings with people who share my state of anxiety. In life, in thought, in becoming. Who understand that we’re in a place beyond asking questions that primarily focus on our own ego. Who understand that imposing never makes sense, nor as a teacher, nor as a student. Who understand creating is not a singular process but one that needs to be shared in order to be fulfilling.

And in the meantime I continue thinking my own thoughts, in as far as that is possible. I am in constant fear of creating something that smothers my being, and continuously searching for something that does precisely that. Happy for the struggle made present, at breakfast and when taking a bath. Happy for moments in which one can shout out, in which one understands one’s position in regard to the Other. Happy to become filled with becoming. Happy when greatness of a name does not stop you from limiting the influence of that seeming greatness, to stop fallaciousness to influence on a basic level.

For now, let’s see where this leads us. Me. There is something going on. I am not sure whether I am part of it, and whether I want to be. But for now, let’s trace the untraceable.

Holi-days in the Summer in an Atheist World

View Mountains of Saas Fee, EGS 2012

It’s that time of the year again, when people ask you – after a remark about the weather – about your plans for the holidays. At first, I found myself a bit perplexed as to how to answer this utterly irrelevant question. But I guess most people do not notice the obvious etymology of the word – holy-day, and being uttered by atheists it does sound a bit weird.

Or, perhaps not. In this day the word ‘holiday’ applied to the period when work ceases might be very appropriate. In this capitalist age, isn’t that what we all work for, this period of time in which we are ‘free’? In which we can worship those values that are still left to value – travel, alcohol, and yes: the weather.

I celebrate holy-days throughout the year. I try to worship my most precious possession, in a capitalist way of speaking, my most precious gift: life. Funny, how I take my life to be a gift, in a way in which the word ‘gift’ still retains some of its German meaning (Gift = poison); life is a very dangerous and deadly adventure.

This summer I will celebrate this gift once more with some very interesting and exciting – and obnoxious and irritating – group of people at the European Graduate School. In my opinion, one of the best ways to spend my summer. Although the intensity of those days will probably make it less of an holiday than one would suppose.

Fortunately, I have the rest of the year to continue to celebrate my holidays.

After Barthes

Pavel Filonov – Flowers of the Universal Flowering, Мировой расцвет

Yesterday I visited the exposition on ‘The Big Change’, on Russian Art 1895-1917. As you might know by now, I’m obsessed by the idea of ‘change’ (well, it’s the topic of my PhD, so I’m rightfully obsessed by it) and as I am very fond of everything Russian ever since the great documentary-travel-televisionseries by Jelle Brand Corstius, I was curious what this had to offer.

What I liked about this exposition, was that it used all sorts of art, although it was still conventional enough for old people to visit it (they bring in the money, of course) in that it showed mostly paintings. But the little alcoves with music composed in that time and the rooms with moving images made it into a great experience.

But after having read Barthes’ Camera Lucida just the day before, and having some great discussions about it with some friends from the European Graduate School, the paintings gave me a very morbid impression. What Barthes is describing about himself as an observer, is something that is easily recognized: being enchanted by something, as if there if something in the artwork (or, photograph as Barthes is focusing on that specifically) that like an arrow pierces you, hits you, yes even wounds you. It is not something that can be searched for in the artwork, it is not something that is rationally approachable. No, it is not what Barthes calls the studium, something that I see in the artwork that I can relate to, and which therefore interests me. Instead, what is moving me, what makes art great, is the punctum.

I realized at this exposition, that although the topic interested me, and the technique and the movement of that time and place is interesting and concerns something that I am thinking about a lot, this didn’t make me experience something unique, which is what ‘true’ art is able to do, in my opinion. It was this punctum that was missing, that lightening that I was waiting for.

Until I got the last room, in which one artist really made me boil inside. Pavel Filonov, ‘Entry into World Flowering’ 1914-1915. Amazing. I stood before it, for quite some time, not analyzing it, not trying to find out what this experience was. No meta-level. Just enjoying the amazing-ness. It was indescribable.

But something was still missing, that photography is a much more willing character for. Paintings are created, one brushstroke at the time. Photographs capture something fleeting that is now made to be there forever. The more the photographer is trying to bend reality in order for his picture to show what he has thought about, the more interesting the picture might become (in the studium sense of the word ‘interesting’), but the less force of capturing the observer it will have. Barthes describes this beautifully: “The Photographer’s ‘second sight’ does not consist in ‘seeing’ but in being there.” (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1982, p. 47)

Then, to end this discussion, I’d like to share a quote which was written on one of the walls of the museum. It shows how artists have a feeling for the bigger picture, and try to put it in words in perhaps a beautiful way, but it also shows how naive this can be…

We ourselves are creating our own hypotheses anew and only upon them, as in our inventions, can we build our new life and new world view. Revolution in art has always predicted the breaking of the old public consciousness and the appearance of a new order in life. (Ljubov Pupova 1921)