Monday, January 23, 2012

What is Posthumanism? Art, Self-Reference, and Systems Theory

I know we aren't reading this text for a few more weeks, but I started in on a couple of the chapters before the end of the semester, became hooked on the ideas, and was convinced that this text would stand as the most important book for my own work in this course. Wolfe's work harkens all the way back to the course that probably most changed the way I thought as an academic and as a scholar, Visual Rhetoric; particularly, Wolfe's work reminded me of my favorite text we read, Picture Theory by WJT Mitchell.

 I wrote an extensive analysis of the first half of the book here, so I will try not to repeat too much of the same material. That being the case, permit me to cite a few words from that post to contextualize my comments here. The question Cary Wolfe's  theoretical apparatus--Niklas Luhmann--raises is whether or not what Mitchell calls a "metapicture" is possible as well as complicates (or perhaps echoes) Mitchell's position on ekphrasis. 


Both Mitchell's work and Wolfe/Luhmann is concerned with self-referential representations (or. . .non representations?). For Mitchell, a metapicture is a "picture about itself." The examples Mitchell gives, the duck-rabbit and Magritte's Pipe are useful because of their relatively obvious staging of meta-pictures. The question is whether or not every picture has the potential to be--and this is the condition of representation--a metapicture. Mitchell seems to answer, yes:

"The metapicture is not a subgenre within the fine arts but a fundamental potentiality inherent in pictorial representation as such" (Mitchell 82).

Does this inherent self-reference extend to text? I think Mitchell would say yes to this, as he tries to make clear that there is not a clear ontological (and maybe even epistemological) distinction between text and image--or that there may be "differences" but not a fundamental difference. As we will see in a moment, Luhmann's systems theory may be able to make this distinction in different terminology.

Another key aspect of the metapicture is to recognize that the picture does not "explain itself" but simply resists interpretation. That is, the picture does not have a "message" that it can communicate. This will become important again once we get into Luhmann's thoughts about art.

Suture and Ekphrasis

We need to think about the relationship between suture and ekphrasis. Ekphrasis refers to the verbal description of a visual work of art. Mitchell outlines three attitudes toward ekphrasis and here I will simply cut and paste from my previous post:

1. Ekphrastic hope: "the impossiblity of ekphrastic is overcome in imagination or metaphor, when we discover a 'sense' in which language can do what so many writers have wanted it to do: 'make us see' (152). It is also when "the estrangement of the image/text division is overcome and a sutured, synthetic form, a verbal icon or imagetext arises in its place" (154). 
2. Ekphrastic fear: "the moment of resistance or counterdesire that occurs when we sense that the difference between the verbal and visual representation might collapse and the figurative, imaginary desire of ekphrasis might be realized literally and actually (154).
3. Ekphrastic indifference: ekphrasis is strictly impossible, it is a curiosity--an obscure literary genre and of a more general topic (the verbal representation of visual art (152).

Mitchell works from the last position, "ekphrastic indifference," which essentially makes the claim that no one can perfectly describe a work of art. 

Luhmann via Wolfe on Art

I want to relate Mitchell's thoughts on ekphrasis, metapictures and 'suture' to Wolfe's What is Posthumanism

Instead of thinking in terms of text and image, Luhmann moves even more abstract into a distinction of system/environment, which Wolfe consistently points out is a functional distinction. In other words, the "environment" can only be defined as everything 'outside' a particular system. Systems are closed, autopoetic, and self-referential, but, as Wolfe will argue (and cite repeatedly) the system's closure is what allows for its "openness to the environment." 

At the most 'general' level (although I am loathe to use that word), Luhmann claims that communcation (not humans) is the only thing that communicates. Thus, and this is perhaps the most important disarticulation (to use Wolfe's language) in the whole book:
Perception (and beyond that, consciousness) and communication operate in mutually exclusive, operationally closed, auto-poietic systems [. . .] the relationship between them is asymmetrical. (Wolfe 271)

That is, what we perceive (like, for example, in an artwork--although artwork "communicates" but communicates a specific thing) and what communicates are distinct. Thus, although "communication is also possible without language," language is a "a specific, second-order phenomenon--that those systems use in the service of the first order processes of meaning for maintaining their own autopoeisis while at the same time enabling them to interpenetrate and use each other's complexity to mutual benefit" (22).

Would it be too strong to say that only through language can we recognize art as art? Or does art "communicate" something without the interference of language? Another way to ask this is "is there 'art' in nature?" The answer is in the deconstruction of the term "nature," because according to Wolfe there is no pre-given environment we could call "nature." Instead, something could be considered 'nature' only from the perspective (is that the right word?) of a particular system.

The work of art poses the question of what 'is' a work of art--or whether it is a work of art, but, and this is crucial, the work of art cannot at the same time answer this question (229). Here we have a similarity to Mitchell's idea about the metapicture communicating something, but without 'content' if you will--or--perhaps more accurately, without saying what it means. Its as if the metapicture or any work of art can communicate the question of difference, and this is all. . .

A couple of passages that I think are useful to explain this more clearly:

Luhmann's point is not to deny the phenomenological aspect of the artwork but to point out--which seems rather obvious upon reflection--that the meaning of the artwork cannot be referenced to, much less reduced to, this material and perceptual aspect. Rather, the work of art copresents perception and communication (Wolfe 231)
Thus, the artwork copresents the difference between perception and communication, and this difference is what allows art to have something like a privileged relationship to what is commonly invoked as the 'ineffable' or the 'incommunicable' and it uses perception to 'irritate' and stimulate communication to respond to the question 'what does this perceptual event mean? (233)

Do we buy this? Does art have this privileged status? Is the privileged status conferred on it by human beings and in this sense do animals "have" art, or can they "produce" artwork? Of course, perhaps the question is not one of production but of observation and meaning--it seems this would be the case for Luhmann and Wolfe. Perhaps some of these answers can be found in Wolfe's text if I look hard enough. It may also be worthwhile to look back at Mitchell's thoughts on animals and illusion in Picture Theory. 

And perhaps the most important question for our class (rather than my own interest in art and representation): Is Wolfe/Luhmann's theory of art 'posthumanist'? What makes it so? Or alternately, is there something about Mitchell's Picture Theory that makes his analysis a "humanist' posthumanism rather than a posthumanist posthumanism to use Wolfe's distinction? (see pg 125).

If we assume that Mitchell and Luhmann are arguing about art in a similar vein, perhaps the real question is what does the terminology of Wolfe/Luhmann get us that we don't get from Mitchell? I'm sure there are many things, so I do not offer this question as antagonistic. This  may be one way to approach Wolfe's dense, well-researched, well-argued, analytically precise and yet continentally aware text on Posthumanism.


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