Monday, February 21, 2005


"People fascinated by the idea of progress never suspect that every step forward is also a step on the way to the end.”
-Milan Kundera

In anticipation of the forthcoming Zoo Biscuit series, we present a brief overview of some of the ideas connected to the Zoo Biscuit:

“Then must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach?” So Socrates – after a characteristically concise and nimble bit of reasoning – demands of Glaucon.

In book 10 of the Republic, Plato disparages the artist for producing work that is mere imitation of the real, and thus removed from truth. Artistic representation, moreover, is of objects ‘in nature’ – themselves copies of the real – and is thus even further removed from truth [read book 10 if only for a great argument never to make your bed].

Plato doesn’t pull any punches. “Here is another point”, Socrates continues, “The imitator or maker of the image knows nothing of true existence; he knows appearances only. Am I not right?”

Surely he is not right. The artist, we have come to understand, does more than simply reflect - his serves up more than an unthinking, unfeeling mimesis – the artist creates, he expresses, he interprets, he critiques, he reveals, he uncovers.

Art is useful. It fulfils a need, it guides us forward, it helps us understand the world and ourselves. It can make us better, can improve the world.

So what compelled Auden to write “that all the verse I wrote, all the positions I took in the thirties, did not save a single Jew. Those attitudes, those writings, only help oneself”? Arthur Danto looks at this, and other such empirical claims – “Did the Beatles cause or only prefigure the political perturbations of the sixties” – pointing out that “even works intended to prick the consciousness to political concern have tended by and large to provoke at best an admiration for themselves and a moral self-admiration for those who admired them.” [Read ‘The Disenfranchisement of Art’ for the bits on ‘Guernica’. Seriously, do this. In fact, do yourself a favour and read the whole of The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art.]

This is a historical point, and open to historical critique. But what is the peculiar historical direction that has framed the question as such? What are the cultural markers that have so positioned our critical terms of reference?

I’m not sure how many buy the classical argument against art, who see it as essentially contrary to – or at least a downward transmutation of – truth, but we certainly hear an echo of it in the manifold queries as to the value, the use, that art offers. Art, if not removed from truth, reality or whatever, at least need take a back seat to the ‘real world’. The more socially or politically sensitive producers of art must feel some of the weight of these challenges, insisting anxiously on the function, the meaning, the relevance of art – how it uplifts persons, communities, countries, the whole world. The more imperturbable are perhaps emboldened by the challenge – positioning their work against accepted normative models, challenging the institutional status quo, revelling in avant-gardeness. This requires, of course, a careful (if the work is any good, anyway) reading of the current social environment, an appreciation and insight into the mechanisms of cultural utilities, and an as careful reordering, deconstruction, or whatever, of these norms. The artist remains no less bound to the currents of social practice than if he were a faithful servant of the establishment. I am reminded of the existentialists’ insistence that a detailed knowledge of your society’s intellectual history was imperative – if only successfully to subvert the chain of received thought, to cut away at the ideologies of value, thus carving out for oneself a life of authenticity. When did an engagement with a given philosophical model become a necessary condition of ontological legitimacy? When did the marker of progress become entrenched at the point just beyond yesterday’s avant-garde?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Social discourse, at its best, transforms and improves. It reveals and clarifies, it motivates action, it sharpens our judgement. But aren’t we talking about art? If, as Arthur Danto suggests, art has outrun itself by transforming into philosophy, it is not without the schizophrenic compulsion – while eschewing the aesthetic for meaning – to be relevant (albeit sometimes by means of standing in direct opposition to the standard terms of relevance) while repudiating any reduction to mere utility. The artist presents himself as a kind of investigative journalist whom one needs a masters degree to understand, whose function may well be not to have any function at all.

Compare this with the Romantic vision. Coleridge in ‘To William Wordsworth’:

O great Bard !
Ere yet that last strain dying awed the air,With stedfast eye I viewed thee in the choirOf ever-enduring men. The truly greatHave all one age, and from one visible spaceShed influence ! They, both in power and act,Are permanent, and Time is not with them,Save as it worketh for them, they in it.Nor less a sacred Roll, than those of old,And to be placed, as they, with gradual fameAmong the archives of mankind, thy workMakes audible a linked lay of Truth,Of Truth profound a sweet continuous lay,Not learnt, but native, her own natural notes !

Beyond time but not outside of it (‘timeless’ and ‘eternal’: something is revealed in the exterior paradox of these synonyms [is there another word for synonym?]: “Time is not with them, Save as it worketh for them, they in it.”) How different this is from the meta-historical imperative to effect a movement. [Not that what these guys were doing wasn’t bold and progressive. Sontag: “The Romantics thought of great art as a species of heroism, a breaking through or going beyond.”]

The image of artist as mystic is notably removed from rarefied musings of the concept-mongers of today. So has art finally evolved into concurrence with Platonic demands?

“Among the archives of mankind, thy work/ Makes audible a linked lay of Truth” The poet is that rare portal to wisdom, a window to immaculate reality. But this aint no book learnin’: “Of Truth profound a sweet continuous lay, / Not learnt, but native, her own natural notes!”

Would Plato have made the distinction between mystic as so understood and philosopher? To discern the pure Forms of truth – that is the ultimate purpose of philosophy. Not appearances, not illusion, “but native, her own natural notes!” Plato insisted only pure detached reason could serve up Truth unmediated; the poet gazes in his own being, serves up his soul – but each one wants only to gaze upon truth profound.

One might wonder what Plato would make of contemporary philosophy, what with its system building, professionalism, and specialisation. It’s not difficult to think of the mystic-logician as more closely connected to the mystic-poet than to the theoretician-model maker of the modern philosophy department. And it is an odd feature of our advanced market society that the higher arts should have come to emulate the practices of academic vocationalism.

However, this same market structure acts as the vital substrate - neatly symmetrical with the state above – for the outstanding social artefact of our era. The Iced Zoo Biscuit has emerged as a product of production, mirroring (becoming?) the pre-functional (though hardly non-functional) aesthetic enterprise. Its positioning as consumable as art (as opposed to art as consumable) is not especially subtle, but it is a charming enough opening gambit.

To understand some of the import of the IZB, we need technical clarity. Francis Fukuyama rues the priority of material over intellectual analysis in post-Hegelian thought. “Marx revered the priority of the real and the ideal completely, relegating the entire realm of consciousness … to a ‘superstructure’ that was determined entirely by the prevailing material mode of production. Yet another unfortunate legacy of Marxism is our tendency to retreat into materialists or utilitarian explanations of political or historical phenomena, and our disinclination to believe in the autonomous power of ideas.”

[And who could fail to be haunted by Hegel’s famous question: “Die Wahrheit über Gebäck ist abdecken und sichtlich. Aber Zuckerguß verdrießt mich. Tut Geist erkennen selbst in Zuckerguß , innerhalb Zuckerguß , oder auch hinter? Oder auch ausführen wir benötigen ein phenomenology über Bonbon?”]

The Iced Zoo Biscuit takes both approaches. And neither.

The IZB - akin to Adorno’s “dialectical double reconstruction” (to use Lambert Zuidervaart’s term) – is, on the one hand, a self-conscious (teasingly auto-parodic?) component of the superstructure [and substructure] – a (brazenly) self-proclaiming commodity – it exists for consumption, is marketed to be consumed, exists to be consumed, and enters popular culture as a consumable (and, importantly, is so viewed from within that culture). In one sense, the IZB reads itself as one determined by, and also determining, the material stimulus. On the other hand, there is strictly ideal awareness [and I should be surprised if the similarities to the dialectical tensions in Schneur Zalman’s cosmology are merely coincidental] in which material and utility is subordinate, or of secondary metaphysical priority, to concept. On this reading, the physical ‘placement’ of the IZB is derived from, or at least understood in relation to, the conceptualisation of both the object and the referential markers in which the object’s ‘meaning’ is entered.

Simone Weil writes that “Marxism is the highest spiritual expression of bourgeois society. Through it this society attained to a consciousness of itself, in it to a negation of itself. But this negation in its turn could only be expressed in a form determined by the existing order, in a bourgeois form of thought. So it is that that each formula of Marxist doctrine lays bare the characteristics of bourgeois society, but at the same time justifies them.”

It should be clear that the Iced Zoo Biscuit evades such ensnarement. The IZB is not tied in with any particular identity expression, but it is safe also to claim it as contemporaneous with each and all politically and materially determined class structures. But while reflective consciousness derived from the Iced Zoo Biscuit is – as was carefully stated – from a component embedded in the particular market structure of given material (or at least practical) social division – the IZB as a unit, and as a series, both beyond and vitally tied up with each and none (no one particular) material structure. [I may be straying into dangerous ground, but it seems that the material IZB is necessarily dependent – as I suggested earlier - on at least some minimum conditions of a certain material type.]

Does this consciousness attain to self-negation? The easy answer first: Yes. Ideally situated beyond the material conditions of material-anthropological matrices [with easy access to nearby shops and good local schools…] the conceptual form of the IZB is negatory in both its non-engagement and its transcendental testimony (whose details have yet to be expounded. [But note from the structure that the essential metaphysical aloofness is does not (logically) contain the possibility of separate existence. It is essentially negatory]) on the conditions and operative conventions of the social structures from which it is perceived.

Alternatively, the physical structure of the IZB seems at once complicit with the existing order, and “in a form determined” by it. But this is directly at odds with the content of that structure [as opposed only to the content supervenient upon the structure of the medium]. On even the most superficial semiotic interpretation (though some have tried to deny it) the biscuit as perceived (physically) is breathtakingly subversive. Putting aside for a moment the (self-aware) declamatory meaning of subversion as mode of being for one moment, the semantic claims of the Biscuit (and here we can differentiate between individual instantiations and also the unit categories) contradict its apparent material location. Moreover, the divergences between form qua form and form as understood as positioned in the normative matrices are, crucially, themselves – through the unusual range of modal expression - a corroboration of the IZB’s non-formal semantic assertions. Note how this differentiates it from media generally – even (especially) dissident media - which is inescapably located from inside the superstructure on which it comments.

But is the IZB linguistically rich enough to carry this through? In Of Grammatology, Derrida queries the value of a science of writing “if it is granted…” among other things “that historicity itself is tied to the possibility of writing; to the possibility of writing in general, beyond those particular forms of writing in the name of which we have long spoken of peoples without writing and without history. Before being the object of a history — of an historical science — writing opens the field of history — of historical becoming.” ‘Historie presupposing Geschichte’.

Granting for a moment Mr Derrida’s dubious association between historical notation and historicity, what determines the necessary mode of historiographical registration? The denotative facility of the optical and olfactory indicants are sufficient for an at least rudimentarily systematic chrono-taxonomy. But more than that, the trans-verbal intentionality of the individual IZB as member of its series presents a representative interface beyond what less fluid normalised textual and linguistic principles are able. Notably, the conventions of grammatology virtually are without application in determining the interrelation between instances within the IZB series.

Writing and reading history through the IZB series is – unsurprisingly, given the descriptive range and power, and nuances of modal recognition, as well as its relative unfamiliarity as a mode of discourse – an extremely subtle exercise. Misinterpretation is perilously easy. There is also the danger of deliberate distortion. It may seem absurd with the clarity of hindsight that Verwoerd’s disingenuous analysis of the colour delineation, especially with relation to foreground motif to background icing hue, was ever taken seriously. (Prompting Biko, only half in jest, to comment, “I eat what I like.”) But that some eminent theorists were even partially taken in illustrates how complex the decipherment can be. The less said about Lenin’s ‘Red Cookie’ project, the better.

But what about our physical interaction with the physical Biscuit object? How should we approach the object materially, what should we do with it? Kierkegaard argued that, in abstract, despair is an important merit, and that the possibility for despair is man’s great spiritual advantage. But actually to be in a state of despair is ruinous. This is unusual: “Generally the relation between possibility and actuality is not like this; if the ability to be such is meritorious, then it is an even greater merit to be it. That is to say, in relation to being able to be, being is an ascent.” Might this case be analogously exceptional? The Iced Zoo Biscuit is certainly estimable in terms of its existence being such as to make possible its being eaten; and we are in turn privileged by the establishment of the possibility of so eating. G.E Moore was convinced that “as the Zoo Biscuit is delicious, it must be good that we eat it.” But some latter-day Kierkergaardians insist that actually to eat the IZB is, if not in any way ruinous, a descent in the relation of ability to reality. This is a minority view, but scholars generally insist on some boundaries in the proper actualisation the potential consumption. One should probably not eat too many Biscuits, and certainly not in one sitting (though debate rages as to whether there is a fixed universal quantity, or whether the appropriate number is relative to the individual eater. Does this increase at weddings?). Kant believed that while we could never taste the Biscuit-in-itself, this was amply compensated for by the creamy texture, and clean sweetness of the icing. This was an advancement on Hume, who thought we never tasted the ‘Biscuit’ as such, but only a bundle of sugar, wheatflour, invert syrup, and so on, at a given point in time.

This, of course, presupposes possession or access to a Biscuit object. But Kierkegaard’s point may be more deeply appreciated when we consider the poignancy of the absent Biscuit. “Existence”, says R.D. Laing (in The Politics of Experience), “is a flame which constantly melts and recasts our theories. Existential thinking offers no security, no home for the homeless. It addresses no one except you and me. It finds validation when, across the gulf of our idioms and styles, our mistakes, errings, and perversities, we find in the other’s communication and experience of relationship established, lost, destroyed, or regained. We hope to share the experience of a relationship, but the only honest beginning, or even end, may be to share the experience of its absence.” If philosophy is the ‘anxious anticipation of death’ (Derrida), there is something starkly beautiful about our rare strength to put aside our theories –our formalised intellectual neuroses, those desperate, touching, pathetic grasps at the appalling fathomless of being – and simply exist; accepting our awesome fate (tomorrow we will work on a way out, we will redefine the real. Right now I’m just looking), in wonder, in veneration of the incomprehensible eternity in which, somehow, somehow I don’t know why, we are able to share a cup of tea, a mug of beer. But where are the Zoo Biscuits? There are none. It is only because of the existence of the Biscuit that its absence is felt so touchingly, with such excruciating pathos. I could attempt to explain the absence (Of course there are many plausible theories: perhaps Pick ‘n Pay were out of stock, though this is hardly likely; more probably someone – I’m not mentioning any names – left the shopping list at home), but I will not – I will choose to not. The Biscuit void is the more closely intelligible, gently mournful, almost bearable microcosm of the primal existential void; a void which is created through reciprocal human socialisation, that is accepted collectively, and which, ultimately, through our muted analysis of acceptance, is transformed into a victory of humaneness, a triumph of existence, an infinitesimal existential assertion of endless significance. We are existential refugees, momentarily forsaking transience for liberation. And of course this is an absence that depends on fate – one cannot engineer the event, not with authenticity (and certainly not without great churlishness). This is another of the rare instances where the failed actualisation of the possible, where that possibility is greatly estimable and meritorious, is an ascent in being. Note though, that the actualisation itself is also a great ascent in being. This pattern of being is most unusual – metaphysically unique, in fact.

How does one detect an absence? “Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest and not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude. Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought. Praise of argument takes it for granted that the artifices of Reason give better results than the unchecked play of our emotions. Such assumptions may be perfectly plausible and even true. Still, one should occasionally put them to a test.” Even if we do not agree with the overall thrust of Against Method, this last point seems exceedingly reasonable. Feyerabend’s challenge – at minimum that we critically appraise our truth-gathering conceptual gadgetry – is one that the thoughtful scientist should embrace enthusiastically. [“Most scientists”, lamented Stephen Jay Gould, “have never read a technical work in the history or philosophy of science; most of my colleagues could not identify a single leader in the field … Tell most scientists about the ‘science wars’ ... and they will stare back at you in utter disbelief.”] [To be fair, try asking your English professor to name the second law of thermodynamics.] [To be really fair, try asking me to do long division.] The absent Zoo Biscuit is a positive vacuum of information, to use a far from adequate term. It has no existence, but is not something that does not exist. From the empirical tabulation methodology of Hans Metterling we can detect, perhaps, the failed realisation its non-actualisation, but this of course presupposes the phenomenon we are seeking. And how satisfactory is a system that can detect a thing only when it fails to transpire. It could never be verified, it could never be falsified. Does this mean the actualised absence (or positive non-actualised potential) of the kind described above cannot rationally be taken to exist? Or do we disregard scientific method – and if so, for what: rhetoric, emotion, intuition? [Note how I have resisted mentioning ‘Lakatos intolerance’.] Feyerabend insists, “If we want to understand nature, if we want to master our physical surroundings, then we must use all ideas, all methods, and not 'just a small selection of them. The assertion, however, that there is no knowledge outside science - extra scientiam nulla salus - is nothing but another and most convenient fairy-tale.” But the Absent Zoo Biscuit Object confers no information, proffers no practical utility – it is simply unadorned knowledge where no system is admitted.

But the ‘breaking away’, the stepping beyond, of the IZB is not a straightforward one. Compare Fanon’s ideas of separation and renewal as he concludes The Wretched of the Earth. “If we want to turn Africa into a new Europe, and America into a new Europe, then let us leave the destiny of our countries to Europeans. They will know how to do it better than the most gifted among us.” If we wish for emulation, let us instead approach the source. Return to the object of our imitation, and extend it to ourselves, extend ourselves to it. “But if we want humanity to advance a step farther, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries. … it is no good sending them back a reflection, even an ideal reflection, of their society and their thought with which from time to time they feel immeasurably sickened. For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man.”

In a sense, each IZB presents a straightforward instance of replication. But this reveals perhaps the essence of its genius. What does the biscuit depict? Each portrays the image, in white, of a zoo animal against one of three standard colour backgrounds. This is bordered by a serrated tan biscuit pastry. (The more literal minded [especially Joburg] critics refer to this as the ‘barbed wire fence’ around the ‘animal self’.) The white image denotes the particular animals with the barest of representative gimmickry, but is plainly representative nonetheless. Barthes points out also that certain Biscuits present “the additional signified ‘Africanicity’”. (More interesting is when they do not. Why the polar bear? Is this vanilla social realism – an echo of the Johannesburg and Pretoria Zoos? Is it simply ironic? A veiled or private reference?) [Note that this standard description favours a ‘view from the front’ approach. Viewing the Biscuit from the ‘back’ (the term is of course problematic. ‘And I suppose North is on top?’ demand the scholars) is inspiring exciting new research. Some insist that visual analysis of the IZB should never be isolated from the other sensory Biscuit phenomena.]

Why the plainness of the animal representation? One should of course be aware of wilful restraint, and a conscious secession from visual ‘movements’ or stylistic rationale. [Pepe Karmel: “…LeWitt decided to use only white for his new gridded constructions, because black (let alone other colors) seemed too ‘expressionistic.’”] But while the image is only what it is (it signifies beyond itself, but itself contains no meaning or expressive content) it is not so causally inert as might be expected. [Freud: “art is almost always harmless and beneficent, it does not seek to be anything else but an illusion. Save in the case of a few people who are, one might say, obsessed by art, it never dares to make any attacks on the realm of reality.”] Paul Klee held that “the creation of a work of art … must of necessity, as a result of entering into the specific dimensions of pictorial art, be accompanied by distortions of the natural form. For, therein is nature reborn.” But the IZB is representative, but does not distort the form that is represented. Its representation is a representation of suggestion (and not suggestion removed or separate from depiction). Suggestion entails subjective comprehension, but not (necessarily) differently from the unmediated (as far as this goes) apprehension of phenomena. The transformation is external to the image.

Glenn Gould thought the purpose of art “the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” The Iced Zoo Biscuit is an object of cool meditation in itself, and alone of itself. It is only what it is; of one age, not of any age. And what a difference that makes.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watch subject. Bush is forever saying that democracies do not invade other countries and start wars. Well, he did just that. He invaded Iraq, started a war, and killed people. What do you think? Why has bush turned our country from a country of hope and prosperity to a country of belligerence and fear.
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7:06 PM  
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Are we safer today than we were before?
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