Artistic, Moral, and Political Overdetermination: An Edgy Conversation, Followed By Cool Music.

A Conversation between Robert Whyte and Z

RW: Last night, I watched a show about the prestigious National Gallery of Victoria, AU doing a 50 year anniversary of what was called “The Field Revisited.”

What was interesting, despite the fact that these kind of pathetic well meaning kiddies were gifted and hardworking was that no one commented on the fact this was really an efflorescence of class, tribes, mysticism and a secular alternative to religion.

Just another self-delusion in this thing we call life.

The issue at heart here is there are games to play, even by innocents, and woe betide those who question each new developing fleur de lis.

Z: I totally agree.

Relatedly, something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is this moral phenomenon: some artistic, moral, or political choice, act, fact, or claim is simultaneously produced by different people for jointly sufficient but also independently sufficient reasons, each of which could justify (in some sense) the choice, act, or effect on its own: but some of those reasons are rationally and/or artistically, morally, or politically cogent, and some of them aren’t.

So, for example, someone produces amazing modernist artwork X for its own sake, just to express themselves creatively and bring some meaningful stuff into an otherwise absurd, indifferent, horrible world, but another person produces the very same X merely in order to become a big fucking star in the 1960s artworld.

Or, to take another example, the very same claim/opinion “racism (sexism, xenophobia, ableism, etc., etc.) is immoral” is held by those who say it because they think racism (or whatever) violates the human dignity of those affected by it and treats those people like mere means or things, instead of with sufficient respect, and also it’s also held by those who merely parrot politically correct, identitarian, left-liberal mumbo-jumbo that in fact entails precisely the sort of identity-driven group Us (good) vs. Them (bad) exclusivity that leads to discrimination and oppression in the first place by segregating people according to arbitrary, contingent characteristics.

See, for example, On The Deeper Source of The Fragility of Human Dignity.

Anyhow, whether artistic, moral, or political, this phenomenon is a pretty close analogue of what jargon-loving Anglo American metaphysicians call “overdetermination”: some single effect has several jointly but also independently sufficient different causes, for example, the same pair of trousers is held up by a belt AND suspenders.

But their favorite example is the same fatal wound being simultaneously produced by two different snipers: I wonder why?

Above all, what’s really difficult is trying to convince people that their reasons can be really bad and self-deceived, even though they’ve actually produced some artistically, morally, or politically pretty good shit, when considered apart from their really bad and self-deceived reasons….

RW: It’s a big thorny complicated issue not having the advantages of a briar patch for us rabbits.

It’s very similar to my political theory of the shit-coloured glasses.

Someone rises to power doing a bunch of stuff, it doesn’t matter what, it’s usually just a fresh alternative to whatever is current.

She can do no wrong.

She gains power and spend her political capital too quickly on a lot of fuckups and broken promises.

At some point, and usually it is a discernible MOMENT, the public put down the rose- coloured glasses and put on the shit-coloured glasses.

Now everything she does is wrong.

It can be the same thing for which she was previously lauded, or it can be something entirely different.

It doesn’t matter, everything makes it worse.

They could possibly do something to slow the slide, but it would have to be massive, crazy change, in an unexpected way. Something that hijacks the agenda.

In the Trump case, I would suspect it would be him successfully negotiating with the Democrats to run as their presidential candidate.

It’s not that unlikely! You heard it here first.

I suspect the production of an “amazing modernist artwork X” is actually not quite the right pitch, it can’t be an “amazing modernist artwork X” without being wrapped up in the game to some large extent, most are class-favoured, innocently tribal, social, and looking for love and recognition.

A better example would be insider art, and even that now has been co-opted by the social mechanisms, there are saints and sinners of outsider art and all the strata in between.

It’s the bell curve, as Ludwig Wittgenwhyte might say.

Duchamp was a really smart guy: he took the game as far from the game as you could then doubled down by retiring and taking up chess, all the while secretly building a massive work in a room that you could only see through the keyhole.

Maybe Duchamp is the only person to ever really make it big and then avoid the shit coloured glasses — but then again if people are successfully doing it we wouldn’t know about them.

Jasper Johns made his works unassailable (Stars and Stripes) to deter the naysayers.

But that’s another story.

Overdetermination as death by firing squad is probably their favourite because they know full well the execution is political, happenstance, contextual and therefore to a “higher authority” immoral because there’s always a “but.”

Re your: “Anyhow, what’s really difficult is trying to convince people that their reasons can be really bad and self-deceived, even though they’ve actually produced some artistically, morally, or politically pretty good shit, when considered apart from their really bad and self-deceived reasons….”

Yes and the opposite also is true, their reasons can be really good and self-aware, and it’s still possible to produce some artistically or morally pretty good shit; also that while being really good and self-aware is no ticket, you can just as easily produce some artistically or morally hideous shit.

In fact, insofar as being “really good and self-aware” must be delusional; since no-one is all knowing, it’s possible that works produced by people who claim the high moral ground of being “really good and self-aware” as if you could get a kookaburra stamp from the southern baptist church.. (and we know how well that went) — indeed, it’s even possibly less likely for such people to produce artistically, morally, or politically pretty good shit

On the other hands (I’m allowed at least three), artistically, morally, or politically pretty good shit is not a panacea to neutralize really bad and self-deceived reasons.

Nor are really bad and self-deceived reasons necessarily bad and self deceived, since if they are self- deceiving they could be wrong about that too.

We just don’t know about it yet.

I don’t mind being self aware, and I know it’s a map, not the territory, and I don’t even mind being painfully self-aware, because it distracts me from the pain of other people.

I think we’ll have to agree the human is an unevolved life form accidentally equipped with technology and language, two things capable of combining in independent evolution which produces artifacts and mechanisms impossible for humans to handle or keep up with.

This, in the really big picture when cockroaches rule, could be called death by stupidity or at the very best, ignorance.

And they are taking us down with them.

But philosophy is always worth while if it helps you question your moral compass and your level of self knowledge.

Correspondingly, I think the key to this discussion is to live with whatever self-awareness level you happen to be afflicted with and continuously try to improve it, a quixotic quest if there ever was one.

–Which is neither the ends justifying the means, or the means justifying themselves: it is the ends embedded in the means, and the quest to live a morally defensible life avoiding and actively vigilant against self-delusion.

As we have discussed before, the natural world of freedom is the law of the jungle, the artificial world of (perhaps desirable) freedom for mutually-tolerable self-actualisation and a diversity of ways of making contributions for the common good (which we might call society) we want to move away from the law of the jungle towards something more enlightened.

Otherwise, the Enlightenment was a waste of time.

So I am saying that there is a distinction between the human (the animal) and the “humane,” which could be translated as the embodied mind aspiring to compassion and understanding, as opposed to brutish self interest, the “human, all-too-human.”

Relatedly, back now to the 1960s artworld.

In some ways, we have seen the contemporary artworld do better.

In that NGV exhibition of the Field artists there were 40 participants, including one woman, Janet Dawson.

The anniversary re-staging 50 years later still has 39 men and 1 woman artist; but they acknowledge the imbalance, even considering the embedded sexism of the time, and in 2018 they have created an an annex, side room, for some women who were actually working at that time in 1968.

Whoopee fuck. It’s something, I guess.

Z: You so totally said it, Robo-bro: there are lots of interesting, further-thought-provoking thoughts there.

By way of a concluding postscript, I’d like to offer a brief commentary on a very cool sentence from one of our earlier conversations:

That’s okay, for it may be simply–or “simply”–a matter of reminding ourselves of the light on the hill.

It’s the meaning of human existence compressed into a single sentence, the cosmos in a microcosm.

So on further reflection, what I think it meant, much expanded, is this.

First, it means that rational hope and creative, moral faith (“the light on the hill”) remain absolutely necessary in a seemingly totally fucked-up world that continually presents overwhelming evidence that would fully justify utter despair.

So it’s being simply a matter reminding ourselves of the light on the hill is an un-scare-quoted radical alternative to just killing yourself right now or even worse, merely continuing to exist as a passively obedient, bio-mechanical puppet-cog in the globalized neoliberal mega-machine: radically on the contrary, it’s a life-affirming, meaning-creating pascalian, kierkegaardian leap into the void.

Second, but actually, this pascalian, kierkegaardian leap isn’t a simple matter at all; in fact it’s infinitely complex, hence it only seems “simple” in the first analysis.

In the final analysis, it’s a lifelong sisyphean, promethean task, pushing the rock all the way up that fucking hill, having one’s insides pecked out by hungry birds at the summit, finally losing consciousness for a few hours, then re-awakening the next day and starting it all over again, on and on and on, till the final fade-to-black.

RW: Aha! That sounds glorybound! Love the insides pecked out by hungry birds!

Z: By the way, you remind me of a man.

RW: What man?

Z: The man with the power.

RW: What power?

Z: The power of hoodoo.

RW: Hoodoo?

Z: You do.

RW: I do what?

Z: Remind me of a man, etc., etc., etc.

–But more specifically, of The Man From Idaho (ho ho ho): MUSIC HERE.



Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 4 December 2018

Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.

Please consider becoming a patron!

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store