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The Art of the Real

"Among the ruined temples there,
   Stupendous columns, and wild images
   Of more than man, where marble daemons watch
   The Zodiac's brazen mystery, and dead men
   Hang their mute thoughts on the mute walls around..."
        - Alastor, Percy Bysshe Shelley


What is it about ancient and modern ruins that awakens within us the sense of an uncanny Real? One can wander the fractured landscapes of our world and realize that it is more like visiting an alien and derelict universe, where fallen factories, decaying shopping malls, overgrown bunkers and redundant mining towns litter the pale city scape like the ghostly demarcations of some corrupted species bent of total annihilation: - where cities filled with debris and rusted assemblages form the nucleus of a monstrous thought in which humans have given way to the blight of a fetid nightmare.

What we are interested in is “places of abjection”—“a no-man’s land too recent, conflicting and repulsive to be shaped as collective memory”. [1] Places that are haunted by a present past too grim or uncanny to be embraced. [2] Graffiti jungles that throb and pulse within the concrete skins of a forgotten city where the colorful life that once inhabited them has been given over to the scrofulous tumors of some lost race of pygmies or giants; roam into and around these cities of oblivion invoking the names of foreign gods, trip over the stones of a blasted king who once rode these asphalt cesspools in a metal stream of liquid fire. Watch the walls mutate in time to the mysterious dance of a terrible predation; read the secret messages that scar the twisted and rotted scapes, decipher their alien and incomensurable scrawls as if they were love notes from some ancient order of being; discover the patterns squirming among the tunnels and corridors of fallen subways and terminals, see what is  crawling out of the murky depths like some mad alchemists alembic full of primordial materials: - with nightmare brews and pungent odors that overpower our waking minds then quickly vanish back into the impenetrable black voids of a spectral galaxy.  

Ray Brassier has told us that there is "a reality that transcends the bounds of possible human experience set out by Kant, but we are learning that it is populated by ‘things’ about which it is proving increasingly difficult to say ‘what’ they are using the resources of sense currently available to us. We will have to forge new vocabularies to be able to say what these things are." [3] What sort of a vocabulary will we begin to forge to bring to light the hidden structure below this strange world of decay and ruin? The original realist painters followed John Ruskin in a return to objective Nature instead of following the prescribed methods of a classical art, and these avant-garde artists were consciously attempting to forge a new artistic language that was not dependent upon art itself but was derived from the natural, the real; not an improved fantasy, but a new vocabulary that would express the truth of reality, free of artistic schemata, conventions and devices accepted in the past as representing reality. Yet, this realist enterprise was till spell-bound by the Kantian dilemmas, bound to a correlationist view of life, while in our time, the true art would need to begin with an objectification of experience that, as Ray Brassier states it, "would generate self-less subjects that understand themselves to be no-one and no-where." (ibid. Brassier)

If the objective world is no longer an object for us, no longer a 'correlationist' form in relations to a subject, for knowing or experiencing by a subject, then what is this new form of art to be? As Dr. David Roden on his blog enemyindustry states it "if we grant reality autonomy from our ideas of it, how is this sovereignty to be understood? What is the place of experience in our understanding of the autonomy of the real – including the experience of art – once we displace the subject from the centre of philosophical concern?" [4]  He informs us of a symposium held at Urbanomic's The Real Thing where Amanda Beech, an artist, intimated that "art may have a contribution to make in understanding the role of experience in relation to a recalcitrantly weird and indifferent universe." (ibid.)

One critic commenting on Amanda Beech's video work Sanity Assassin at the Tain said she "found this work to be violent, abrasive and intimidating, the raw amphetaminean rush of imagery, noise and text bombards the organ of the eye with such unrelenting intensity that I found myself in an uncomfortable limbo, between a tension of cerebral comprehension/contemplation and the more physical, instinctual reactions to the stimulus that drenched me."[5] It was a glimpse of the speculative realist art of the future, of "the sublime being re-construed as an aesthetic gravity, pulling the viewer into 'complicity with anonmalous materials." (ibid.) 

On Frieze Magazine Graham Harman's philosophical work was discussed in relation to deconstruction and art:

"Harman’s philosophy gives licence for a renewed boldness in cultural criticism. Deconstruction in particular preached against making definitive judgements about texts or artworks, favouring strategies of deferral and equivocation that suspended interpretative closure. The ostensible motivation for these evasions was a reverence for the irreducible complexities of the text. But instead of illuminating cultural objects, this often only obscured them; rather than engaging with the object, theory was induced into interminable meditations on how it was impossible to write about it. Harman shows that any encounter with an object must caricature it – but it is only through such caricaturing that a glimpse of the object’s hidden richness can be gleaned."

Caricature has always been associated with exaggeration, the distortion of an object by mocking or wounding it to bring out its immanent strangeness; as well as the use of the Grotesque Macabre in which the excesses of the physical, the body and bodily excesses in unrepentant and outrageous exhibition and joyous celebration enter what Bahktin called the 'carnival spirit of laughter'. Maybe the satyr plays of Aristophanes and the pataphysics of Alfred Jarry are closer to our speculative realist impulse in art than the alienation of cosmic horror, yet it seems that many of these philosophers have chosen H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti as the aesthetic magicians of a new world form with their bleak cosmic pessimism and despair as the guiding principle of an abject art rather than the joyous festival of the Medieval or Renaissance Carnivals. Yet, I wonder if the macabre grotesque might not become a form worthy of this strange realism as well, for the macabre brings with it the power of death and the gruesome humor that brings about the "the unresolved clash of incompatibles, one of which is some form of the comic, and also as the ambivalently abnormal."[7]


Yet, as E.M. Cioran told us in aphoristic splendor the "grotesque appears only in very negative states, when great anxiety arises from a lack of life; the grotesque is an exaltation in negativity." (On the Heights of Despair p. 18)  Maybe a return to the work of Charles Dickens might be in order where he used the grotesque and monstrous caricature to describe the parlour of Mrs Pipchin:

"It was not, naturally, a fresh-smelling house; and in the window of the front parlour, which was never opened, Mrs Pipchin kept a collection of plants in pots, which imparted an earthy flavour of their own to the establishment. However choice examples of their kind, too, these plants were of a kind peculiarly adapted to the embowerment of Mrs Pipchin. There were half a dozen specimens of the cactus, writhing round bits of lath, like hairy serpents; another specimen shooting out broad claws, like a green lobster; several creeping vegetables, possessed of sticky and adhesive leaves; and one uncomfortable flower-pot hanging to the ceiling, which appeared to have boiled over, and tickling people underneath with its long green ends, reminded them of spiders—in which Mrs Pipchin's dwelling was uncommonly prolific, though perhaps it challenged competition still more proudly, in the season, in point of earwigs." (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1970, p. 160-161)

Only time will tell what path it will take. We might begin by looking at Reza Negarestani's Cyclonopedia.

Eyal Weizman, author of Hollow Land, says that Cyclonopedia is "a forensic journey across the surface territories of the Middle East and into the depth of its sub-terrain. The earth is produced as a living artifact, gutted and hollowed out by nomadic war tactics, the practices of extreme archaeology and the logic of petroleum extraction. Inventing a radical new language and reconceptualizing the relationship between religion, geology, and ways of war, Reza Negarestani philosophically ungrounds thus the very grounds of contemporary middle-east politics."

Eugene Thaker, author of Biomedia and The Global Genome, tells us that the "Cyclonopedia manuscript remains one of the few books to rigorously and honestly ask what it means to open oneself to a radically non-human life – this is a text that screams, from a living assemblage known as the Middle East, "I am legion." Cyclonopedia also constitutes part of a new generation of writing that refuses to be called either theory or fiction; a heady mixture of philosophy, the occult, and the tentacular fringes of Iranian culture – call it "occultural studies." To find a comparable work, one would have to look back to Von Junzt's Unaussprechlichen Kulten, the prose poems of Olanus Wormius, or to the recent "Neophagist" commentaries on the Book of Eribon."

E. Elias Merhige, director of Begotten, says Cyclonopedia and Negarestani that it "is rare when a mind has the courage to take our precious pre-conceptions of history, geography and language and turn them all upside down, into a living cauldron, where ideas and spaces become alive with fluidity and movement and breathe again with imagination and wonder. In this great novel by Reza Negarestani, we are taken on a journey that predates language and post dates history. It is all at once apocalyptic and a beautiful explosive birth of a wholly original perception and meditation on what exactly is this stuff we call 'knowledge'."

So is this the path of a speculative realist art of the future? We will have to see...



Note: I must admit that I have come late to the game, and have just received Negarestani's work and will have to wait to comment on it myself for a future essay.

1. González-Ruibal, A. (2006) The dream of reason: An archaeology of the failures of modernity in Ethiopia. Journal of Social Archaeology, 6, pp. 175-201.
2. Domanska, E. (2005) Toward the archaeontology of the dead body. Rethinking History, 9, pp. 389-413.
3. Ray Brassier Against an Aesthetics of Noise: Interview with Bram Ieven nY web
4.
The Real Thing: Art and Speculative Realism
5. Notes From The Vomitorium The Real Thing, Urbanomic at Tate ( A journey )
6. Clearing the Air Frieze Magazine
7. The Grotesque and Related Terms and Modes  from Philip Thomson, The Grotesque. Methuen Critical Idiom Series, 1972 





 



Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
David Roden
Dec. 31st, 2010 10:37 am (UTC)
Hi. Really loving your posts here. I've a response to this one and Algorithm and Contingency's response here:

http://enemyindustry.net/blog/?p=539
earth_wizard
Dec. 31st, 2010 03:33 pm (UTC)

Thanks!

I left a partial comment on your blog and will need to think through this thoroughly and create a new post to answer both yourself and Robert Jackson...
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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S.C. Hickman
earth_wizard
S.C. Hickman

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