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thoughts on elon, part 2

2. Opening digression on the function of art, via Whitehead

So, once again, and as a first elliptical step along the circuitous path we are opening via Elon Musk, what is the function of art? Today, we think of art as a thing, as an object, as an installation. But if we want to know about the function of art, we have to start by going back beyond this everyday understanding of art as the ‘job’ of someone who is an artist.

Going back beyond this, we have to say that, in the past, in the prehistoric past of the tribe, for example, art was fundamentally a part of ritual. Whitehead argues that, for the emotional beings that we are, ritual was the ‘primitive outcome of superfluous energy and leisure. […] Mankind became artists in ritual.’ But if we wish to see ritual as a function, then we must see it as the outcome of a divergence and diversification from biology, where sensitivity opens onto another kind of sensitization that, with Bernard Stiegler, we could call the sensational:

It was a tremendous discovery how to excite emotions for their own sake, apart from some imperious biological necessity. But emotions sensitize the organism. Thus the unintended effect was produced of sensitizing the human organism in a variety of ways diverse from what would have been produced by the necessary work of life.

Whitehead’s use of this term, ‘work’, as that which is made necessary by our biological conditions of subsistence, must be understood in relation to his tripartite division in The Function of Reason between living, living well and living better. As a question of living well, we might say that the function of ritual is the artistic use of repetition to achieve the transformation of a situation: in the tribal dance, the diffuse collection of individuals who make up the tribe, with their disagreements and their disputes, are brought together into a higher unity, the unity of the tribe itself, against the ‘downwards tendency’ to fall into disunity; in the war dance, they do the same thing, but in order to galvanize that unity into the strength and the will to fight against another collective group; in the courtship ritual, two separate individuals are brought together and conjoined so that they will be raised into a unity that would be a subunit within the tribe, with the possibility of having children according to the law of the tribe and so on.

In every case, ritual is a ‘way of artificially stimulating emotion’ whose function is to generate artificial affective automatisms in order to transform a situation, and to transform it in terms of the relationship between different levels, different orders of magnitude: the individual, the couple, the family, the tribe, the ethnic group, and so on. But how is this transformation possible? It is possible, and it is only possible, if the practitioners know how to do it, if they know how to carry out the ritual, if they know how to use the artistic objects that are sacred objects in a way that achieves and performs this ritual. It is through the practice of these art objects that access is gained to some higher value, beyond values, which supplies the criterion for the determination of value by which the arrangement of higher and lower levels can be organized. The transformation this involves is therefore performative in John Austin’s sense: by doing something ‘correctly’, that is, in the right context and in the right way, that is, with knowledge, an operation occurs through which a transformation is effected. This transformation is the work art does in the ritual.

When we think about this ‘right way’, about the ‘institutional context’ that means a priest can perform the act of marrying a couple, it sounds as if the rule precedes the ritual: is the ritual not then always ‘conservative’? No doubt this is very often the case, because the function of art in such rituals is to transform a situation but to transform it in order to maintain the continuity of the relationship between these different orders of magnitude. But at the same time, at some point in time, a particular ritual begins. Rituals are invented. And rituals are constantly changing, even when it may be that nobody is consciously deciding what to change. In fact, no two rituals are ever precisely the same, because the knowledge of how to do the ritual ‘properly’ itself changes, as the world changes, as the individuals who compose that world change, and, most importantly, as the products of our technics and our artistry change, giving rise to challenges to old ways of doing things, that is, old ways of transforming situations, old ways of negotiating the relationship between the different orders of magnitude within a particular locality.

What is this ‘knowledge’ that makes it possible for art and ritual to transform a situation. It is the knowledge of how to do and make the objects and techniques of artistic production, and the knowledge of how to use them, how to practise them. But it is also a matter of a kind of ‘cosmological’ knowledge, of something higher, something that, in Stiegler’s terms, does not exist but consists, something to be aimed at or something that orients how to negotiate this transformation of the relationship between orders of magnitude, and that does so by bestowing meaning and value.

This last kind of knowledge is of a very strange kind, because we, latecomers, we very often tend to think: but all these tribes, all these ethnicities, all these little localities, all these ‘minor differences’ (and their narcissism, as Freud said), each one of them ‘knows’ something different than all the others, and all these differing knowledges of higher beings and deities and so on are all incompatible with each other, if not simply false. So surely this is not knowledge at all, we tend to think, surely it is the very antithesis of knowledge. But in fact, knowledge always has this very structure: it always aims at things that do not exist, like the point and the line that are the foundation of Euclidean geometry, but that consist – we need them, and we aim at them through our knowledgeable desire. Even in science, the aim is not to discover facts, but laws: which do not exist, but consist.

Given all this, the function of art would then be to cultivate, to uncover and to utilize knowledge in the broadest possible sense in order to negotiate and renegotiate the transformation of situations existing between varying orders of magnitude, that is, varying scales of locality. And this is the case in a situation where, however apparently stable, new problems always eventually arise in this negotiation between orders of magnitude, in turn requiring the transformation of art itself, and of its knowledge. As Whitehead also understood (in relation to the rise of ‘religion’ as progenitor of living better), this then becomes a question not just of generating artificial automatisms, but, on the basis of those automatisms, of generating new knowledge enabling the autonomy of thinking:

For just as ritual encouraged emotion beyond the mere response to practical necessities, so religion in this further stage begets thoughts divorced from the mere battling with the pressure of circumstances. Imagination secured in it a machinery for its development; thought has been thereby led beyond the immediate objects of sight. Its concepts may in these early stages be crude and horrible; but they have the supreme virtue of being concepts of objects beyond immediate sense and perception.

In the history of art, this function of art has gone through at least two fundamental divorces. First, there is the divorce of art from ritual itself: this is what produces the notion of the artist as producer of the art object. It appeals, like the ritual object, to something higher, but this ‘something higher’ that does not exist but consists is no longer necessarily a deity, but beauty (or, very often, divine beauty). The art object thereby becomes an aesthetic object in the classical sense, that is, in the sense that emerges from out of the ritual culture that ancient Greece still was, as tragic culture.

Second, there is the divorce that occurs when artistic production is confronted with another kind of production: industrial production. Through this encounter, the art object becomes or resists becoming itself industrial, and, even more so, art becomes or resists becoming a market. In becoming industrial, in becoming a market, and even in its way of resisting becoming industrial or a market, art gets caught up in that commensurability of all things that is the calculation of the market, of the art market. And so it is forced to abandon that notion of ‘something higher’ that would be beyond value and hence able to bestow value, or in other words to accept the market as value of values: the problem of modern art thereby becomes the constant problem of knowing what art is, why it is, why it matters – whether it has a function.

In this way, the ‘knowledge’ with which art becomes preoccupied is, a little like philosophy, more and more insular, internalized, a matter of rejecting past notions of art’s function and of proclaiming new ones, through constant reiterations of this function that prove to very often be more or less calculated strategies on that very market, even at the moment when something is celebrated for ‘raising questions’ or ‘transforming perceptions’ or just being ‘radical’.

In this way, art comes to think of itself increasingly in terms of a war with itself, within the greater economic war that defines the global market. But in fact, art in this industrial age that continues today has, especially since the twentieth century, been involved in another war, with another kind of production – art versus what Adorno and Horkheimer called the ‘culture industry’. And in this war, art has constantly lost ground, retreating further and further into a walled garden while the culture industry expands to a planetary scale, absorbing the ‘art industry’ that succumbs to marketing.

What fundamentally is the difference between this modern art and the culture industry? If there is a difference, it is surely not fundamental. If this is a war, it is not a war between two enemies, but between two tendencies. The first is the tendency that sees that the question of art ultimately cannot be divorced from the question of function, and that the question of function always involves a question of knowledge, and that knowledge is always a matter of a desire for the knowledge of what does not exist, yet consists, and that this must be cultivated and practised and transformed. The second is the tendency that dissolves all of that into calculability, into the market, and into speculation on that market. This second tendency aims as far as possible at the destruction of localized knowledge, even as it more and more comes to value ‘information’ – because only information can be calculated.

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