Thursday 11 February 2010

The blind leading the blind?

'For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn’t there', ICA, London

The name alone provided me with sufficient reason to visit this exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Arts. A theological colleague of the great psychologist and philosopher William James is said to have uttered in conversation with James that ‘a philosopher is like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there’. While the quote itself may be apocryphal (and even if it’s not, precisely which colleague of James said this appears to be lost to the ages) it has always stuck with me; as an intellectually jaded former student of analytical philosophy, it perfectly encapsulates the sort of ‘mind-forged manacles’ (to borrow a term from Blake) in which this form of philosophical inquiry can too frequently leave individuals ensnared. As such, the eponymous phrase has always had a special place in my heart and, so too, I naively thought, would this exhibition. How very wrong I was.

The exhibition presents itself as a ‘celebration’ of the ‘speculative nature of knowledge’ and a rebuttal to the ‘common assumption’ that ‘art is a code that needs cracking’. To this end, it presents work which ‘employ nonknowledge, unlearning and productive confusion’ as forms of understanding the world. What does this mean in practice? As far as I could tell it simply entails removing any supplementary material which would explain, contextualise or otherwise aid the appreciation of the work on show. The main gallery of the ICA is filled with a splurge of installations, jostling noisily for the attention of the visitor, purported highlights being: a video charting the interactions of two people in a bear and rat costume, perhaps culminating (it’s difficult to know quite what would count as a culmination) in the rat throwing up, as well as an enormous mess of a collage which is, at least in parts, somewhat intriguing.

Is this a case of the blind leading the blind? The curatorial ambitions of the exhibition perhaps make sense within an intellectual context where its underlying suppositions have become a matter of consensus. However to those who neither think that ‘art is a code that needs cracking’ nor that knowledge has a ‘speculative nature’ which ought to be ‘celebrated’ (and in fact reject the terms of this facile disjunction outright) then the pretensions of this exhibition are laid bare and they are, to put it mildly, grating.

One aspect that particularly bothered me was the appropriation of the term Avidyā in the booklet accompanying the exhibition. This Sanskrit term, we are told, should be understand as part of an ‘anti-epistemology’ involving the valorisation of uncertainty and the emphasis on the unknown and unknowable (ie, the epistemic stance which underpins the curation of the exhibition). Ironically the term itself (generally translated as ‘ignorance’, ‘delusion’ or ‘unwise’) takes on a deeper philosophical meaning within Buddhist though, which was the main cultural vehicle for its introduction to Western audiences. In Buddhist terms Avidyā means, as the American sociologist of religion Douglas Porpora puts it, ‘such fascination with the superficialities of life that we fail to turn our attention to anything higher or deeper’. It is a preoccupation with immediate phenomena and involves a blunting of critical rational thought through the fixation on sensual experience.

I suspect it would be difficult for a critic to make a more incisive critique of this exhibition, or at least the vacuous philosophical postmodernism underlying it, than the curators themselves inadvertently did through their wilful adoption of this term to describe their epistemology. It is symptomatic of the sort of pseudo-radicalism that, at least for a time, was all too pervasive in the philosophical world: striking a blow against ‘Truth with a capital T’ was seen as a political act (and perhaps a tacit justification for a lifetime of de facto political quietism from academics safely ensconced in the ivory tower). This exhibition left me with the depressing feeling that the vacuity of these intellectual poses has been uncritically reproduced by some in the cultural world and, as a consequence of being divorced from their philosophically underpinnings, actually rendered more vacuous.

If it seems my dismissal is unnecessarily vitriolic it is because the underlying ethos of such work is not just wrong but politically dangerous. Far from being a radical act, calling into question the basic processes of rational thought (knowledge, truth, contradiction and evaluation) is, at heart, a reactionary acclimatisation. No doctrine better suits contemporary capitalism than postmodernism with its scepticism towards the conceptual underpinnings of critical and emancipatory thought. As Douglas Porpora puts it, consumer capitalism not only ‘thrives on avidyā’ but ‘secretes avidyā’. Turning away from questions which are universal and emancipatory in their scope, substituting them for a ‘fascination with the superficialities of life’ (the new, the shiny, the pleasurable), is not a critical or radical stance but rather a surrender and an intellectually vacuous one at that. This basic political reality doesn’t change simply because one dresses it up as an epistemological stance. When human history involves a perpetual struggle towards knowledge and the melioration of the human condition through the practical mastery such knowledge affords, the intellectually dubious celebration of ‘nonknowledge’ and ‘unlearning’ can’t help but seem like the decedent conceit of bored, as well as boring, aesthetes. 

Run over.

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