Park MacDougald

Month: March, 2016

Nam June Paik in DC

[I’m posting some re-edited versions of my old blog posts to get some more content up here. This one is referencing an exhibit that I attended in Washington, D.C. in April 2015]

This Sunday, I went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition Watch This! Revelations in Media Art, “an introduction to media art and to the material and conceptual exchange with technology that is shaping artistic practice,” according to the Smithsonian website. Next to that, in slightly smaller type, we learn that the exhibit has been made possible by (among others) Altria– known until 2003 as Philip Morris:


In an exhibition about how human systems of meaning have been mediated and changed by technology and the image, it’s perhaps appropriate that an unsavory source of funding was obscured by a nonsense corporate neologism and pre-imagistic block of colors. Anyway.

The most spectacular piece on display was Nam June Paik’s Megatron/Matrix, a gigantic wall of tube televisions that had been transformed into an avatar of subjectivity in the information age:


Nam June Paik. Megatron/Matrix. 1995


The Smithsonian says:

Megatron Matrix is roughly the size of a billboard and holds 215 monitors. The video – augmented by a loop of unrelated soundbites – mixes images from the Seoul Olympics with Korean folk rituals and modern dance. Smaller clips play simultaneously on multiple monitors, while larger, animated images flow across the boundaries between screens, suggesting a world without borders in the electronic age. Paik sorted the monitors into two distinct sections. The Megatron conveys the vast reach of the media, while the smaller section, the Matrix, emphasizes the impact on each of us.”

The larger section on the left (“the Megatron”), broadcasts fragmentary, disconnected loops of news footage, partially and sometimes fully overlaid by striking animated images such as the bird shown in the picture above, or manga-style human figures. On the right, in the Matrix, the images were more abstract – awkward, dancing CGI humanoids, or highly rendered human faces, flashing and rotating in patterns – always arranged to draw the viewer’s attention to the eye of the visual storm: a single TV in the center of the Matrix playing a continuous loop of softcore pornography. Two topless women writhe on a bed in a sharply illuminated room; the camera cuts and zooms erratically, lingering on the the obvious body parts, and briefly displaying the mock seduction on the models’ faces.

The description provided by the museum suggest that the nude women are meant to convey that “our bodies are our primal connection to the world,” and in fact the central screen suggests a substrate of animal desire beneath the sensory overload of the spectacle. Yet its telling that in this vision, even primitive sexuality is always already mediated by the image. Pornography represents desire, though in a thoroughly commodified, spectacular form. While true of all representations, it is especially true of porn that its status as representation calls attention to itself, assuming an independent significance outside of the reality – sex – of which it is nominally a copy. What does it mean that our ‘primal connection to the world’ is a secondary, artificial, socially mediated fantasy?

It seems clear that Megatron/Matrix depicts a basically Freudian model of the self: the Megatron is the ‘real’ world and the Matrix is our inner/subjective world, with unconscious sexual drives at its core. These divisions are formally maintained by the organization of the piece, and even at the level of content we observe differences – notably, the images in the Matrix are almost exclusively of other humans. Yet the overall effect is to efface these distinctions by emphasizing their sameness. The world and the self are simply different aggregates of electronic images, or packets of information. Sex is no different, essentially, from politics. History too collapses into a ubiquitious “now,” with Korean folk rituals side-by-side with modern entertainment in a timeless, repetitive world of pictures.


Paolo Virno has termed this sense of the collapse of history as déjà vu, a condition in which new experience is perceived as memory, and the present as a repetition of an illusory past. Déjà vu is a sort of colonization, by memory, of both the present and the future. It is at once the condition theorized by postmodern partisans of the End of History thesis – Virno names Kojeve and Baudrillard – as well as an actually existing mode of conduct in late industrial society, characterized both by fatalism regarding action, which is doomed to repeat the past (one is a performer playing out a role), and by a tendency to view one’s own life as would a spectator or tourist, “collecting” experiences rather than living them. TINA and Instagram. Virno maintains that this is fundamentally a misrecognition.

In déjà vu, our present action is felt to correspond to some identical action in the past. This past, however, is not an actual past event, but a “fictitious other-then,” an undifferentiated past in general that “accompanies every actuality like an aura – without, though, itself having ever been actual.” Because it is a purely formal past, containing no content of its own, every event or experience can be referred back to it, taking on the appearance of a repetition.

Déjà vu here is what Virno calls a “real anachronism,” because it really is an error in chronology – the appearance of repetition is an illusion. Yet this real anachronism refers back to, and is a confusion of, a “formal anachronism” that actually is found in human language and action. The past-in-general is an a priori form of anteriority, structurally attached to all presents, and pointing them back to itself. It refers all actuality to a prior potentiality. This structure is embedded within human language, understood not as a system of signs, but as the language faculty, or the capacity for speech. Language exists as “an inexhaustible potential, a potential that is perennial because it is never exhausted or attenuated by the ensemble of its realizations.” The actual instances of language as we experience it, in the form of concrete words and utterances, emerges from this language-as-potentiality, and both presuppose and refer back to it. This is an anachronism, because language-as-potentiality is always formally anterior to any concrete utterance, even though it only ever appears to us in the guise of these utterances, which then point back to the faculty that made them possible. Virno applies the same formula to all action, and thus labor and politics – our capacity to act always exceeds, and is presupposed by, our actions. As the gap between what is and what could be, this formal anachronism is thus the absolute pre-condition for all human action, communication, and History.

Déjà vu occurs when the formal anachronism is confused for a description of reality: our actions are nothing but repetitions of that which already exists, my speech is nothing but a re-arrangement of things that have already been said. In Virno’s words: “false recognition [i.e. déjà vu]… reconfigures today’s possible as a previously-existing real that we must now inevitably reiterate.” Thus Virno’s thesis that déjà vu’s illusion of the End of History is only possible as a misrecognition of History’s actual condition of possibility – the formal gap between our actions and our capacity to act.

This sense of déjà vu is on terrifying display in Megatron/Matrix: our reality is a looped repetition of previously existing realities, and distinctions between past, present, and future lose their meaning. The way out of this bind is suggested by another piece in the exhibit – Buky Schwartz’s Painted Projections:


Abstract shapes are painted on the wall and floor of a hallway in such a way that they appear as a cube when viewed from the correct angle. A camera and monitor are arranged so that any person walking through the hallway, when viewed on the monitor, appears to be walking in and out of this cube. For the viewer, ‘reality’ is limited to the view of the camera; insofar as every passerby is perceived in terms of their interactions with this illusory cube, this view entails a foreclosure of possibility – ’action’ can only be action within the confines of the frame, which in reality is no action at all. It is only when we remove our eyes from the screen that its ‘reality’ is shown to be nothing of the sort.


So, logically…


Liberalism has been catching a lot of shit of late. The most recent entry into the genre is this article – “What Bernie and the Left Need Now: A Radical Enlightenment” – from Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim. While I’m often sceptical of liberalism myself, nobody likes a pile-on.

The basic problem with left-wing politics, according to Fluss and Frim, is liberals’ stubborn clinging to the value-neutral, procedural liberalism of John Rawls, which attempts to provide a framework for how to run a state in which different people have competing sets of values. Because BDSM enthusiasts and arch-Catholics must live in the same country without killing each other, Rawls suggests that the state should be a more or less neutral arbitrator between competing value-systems, endorsing none, and making sure that no one violates anyone else’s rights. Sounds reasonable, naja?.

Fluss and Frim think its not, because neutrality is bullshit! Elevating the rights of the individual above communal or familial or class obligations is already a value-laden decision! You can’t escape ideology! Or, I’m assuming that’s their claim, because what they actually say is that Sanders’s supporters are low-energy compared to Trump’s, and that this might be because Trump expresess a coherent Weltanschauung of white supremacy while Sanders stands for a sort of weak tea Rawlsian, pluralist humanism. Or maybe Trump supporters are pre-gaming rallies with hunch punch and Everclear, who knows. The takeaway is that “perhaps one does need a coherent worldview to undergird a consistent, emancipatory politics.”

Gewiss. So what’s on offer? Their preferred replacement is a “radicalized” version of Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment, which refers, for Israel, essentially to the philosophy of the 17th century Dutch materialist Baruch Spinoza (and assorted disciples), who, Israel believes, Got It Right in a way that no one before or since has. Samuel Moyn quotes Israel on the values of the Radical Enlightenment: “democracy, racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state.”

As Moyn notes, this Enlightenment is “simply those principles deemed worthy of rescuing from the past,” and the authors’ decision to “radicalize” Israel’s version with the addition of French and Haitian Jacobinism, plus Marx, make me suspect that they are leafing through the history of philosophy in search of whatever metaphysical bric-a-brac flatters the politics of radical Ph.D candidates. But however they got there, they end up with a system of five intelocking elements:

  • Rationalism – “the universe is essentially knowable and that all limits to knowledge are merely provisional.”
  • Materialism – “Human beings are not a special “state within a state,” but are thoroughly part of nature. Intelligible laws of cause and effect determine human beings and social behavior no less than other natural phenomena. This colors how we think of social and political problems, as not stemming from unnatural and wicked desires, but instead from perfectly comprehensible causes.
  • Humanism – “Since all people are conditioned by common, natural laws, then there can be no stark separation between different peoples, sexes, races, etc. Diverse needs, desires, and conditions of flourishing are ultimately translatable across all parochial boundaries.”
  • Hedonism – “Against the otherworldliness of the Middle Ages, which saw humanity’s bodily nature as “corrupt,” hedonism asserts that we need not fear the “garden of earthly delights.” This ethical naturalism is a departure from the exaggerated humility, chastity, and pious shame of an earlier worldview which still haunts us today.”
  • Perfectionism – “combines all four of the above principles into a philosophy of history and action. Humanity, through common reason and a desire for happiness, is naturally capable of solidarity for the achievement of overarching projects—i.e. the increasing “perfection” of our worldly lot.”

Of course, aside from one and two, there’s no actual argument for why these five elements go together. Is Spinozan rationalism still defensible after 300-odd years of critique? Does this fit with what we know from contemporary science? Is there a subject-object problem? Is humanism, as they define it, logically deductible from rationalism and materialism? Does gravity imply human rights? Do human rights and gravity imply our power to perfect the world? Does one system of ethics, alone among all others, proceed not from specific, historical cultural practices, but from the fundamental structure of the universe? Who told Fluss and Frim? God? Jonathan Israel!?

I’m sure there is a way, however torturous, to provide foundations for Spinozan perfectionism, but unfortunately Fluss and Frim can’t be buggered. But what’s the practical upshot of this yes-we-can rationalism? If we weren’t such effete liberals, what would our politics look like? Well…

Rationalism implies that people ought to have conscious control over the greater part of their lives, the perfection of their talents, the ways they contribute to society, and how they cooperate with others. In the twenty-first century, as a matter of fact, the majority of most people’s waking hours are spent at their job. Thus, a Radical Enlightenment ethic as applied to today means the democratization of daily economic life: not just redistribution, not just state ownership of large industry or banks, but the conscious, democratic control over people’s own workplace. This includes not only long-term production plans, but also discretion over daily necessities: everything from staples and spreadsheets, to hiring and firing.

But of course. The hypothetical capacity of humans to attain perfect knowledge of the universe implies an economic system that tends to implode at any level of complexity higher than a co-op. The non sequiturs start in the first sentence – why would rationalism imply a need for conscious control over anything? Reason could perfectly well demonstrate that markets maximize welfare when people don’t exercise democratic control over staples and spreadsheets, and in fact that’s what economics has done over roughly the last century. Go ahead and argue if you like – economics has no theory of value, or economics is an unreal abstraction, or economics is bourgeois false consciousness – but don’t tell me that according to natural law I need to consult the fucking demos before I grab a stapler out of the supply closet.

The authors cite Samuel Moyn’s harsh review of The Radical Enlightenment in the article, but they don’t seem to have actually processed the substance of Moyn’s criticism. Moyn notes, for one, that there is no necessary connection between metaphysical naturalism and any sort of ethics whatsoever. Hobbes endorsed rationalism and materialism, and supported Leviathan nonetheless. More importantly, the Enlightenment idea that you can use reason to derive absolute ethical and political principles from the structure of reality has had what we might generously call mixed results. More Moyn, citing Dan Edelstein’s The Terror of Natural Right:

To craft his argument, Edelstein combines a long-range depiction of Enlightenment fantasies of a polity based on nature alone with an intrepid study of what happened beginning in 1792–93, when Louis XVI was tried and executed—an event that set the stage for the Jacobins to come to power later. Edelstein grippingly shows that because the earlier tradition of “natural law” allowed for the identification and destruction of nature’s enemies, it was tempting for Jacobins building a natural society to deem threats real and imagined inimical not to themselves alone but to humanity in general—outlaws of nature to be put to death…

If Edelstein is right, calling for Enlightenment redemption, and the saving truth of nature, is never going to be enough on its own.

Incredibly, however, after ‘acknowledging’ Moyn’s critique, Fluss and Frim’s solution is not to address these concerns, but to expand Israel’s Spinozan Radical Enlightenment to include French and Haitian Jacobinism. So, to review:

A: We’ve revived radical naturalist ethics!

B: Be careful; radical naturalist ethics were the justification for bloody Jacobin political purges!

A: No problem, because we’ve expanded our radical naturalist ethics to include Jacobinism!

B: What the fuck?

Now, Rawlsian liberalism has come in for a lot of criticism. Some of it I’m sympathetic to. I think that, at the end of the day, it is probably helpful for a political community to endorse some definite conception of the good that can serve as a frame of reference for political debate and a legitimate end of state policy, provided that adequate protections are maintained for individual and group rights. But, it’s worth noting that Fluss and Frim’s natural law Jacobinism is exactly the sort of stuff that Rawlsian liberalism was invented to deter; that is, you can’t go forcing revolutionary transformation on a diverse society just because some clever grad student thinks he’s figured out how the world works.