(Loosely reflecting while re-reading Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life…)
As in Spheres, PS’s aim is to create (or at least open up a space for) a new life-support system for humans, a post-religious quasi-religion grounded in practice and values that can support us and remain believable even when we realize that we have just been making stuff up. His efforts encourage me to also “change my life”, or find a way to think about and live about value.
It is as if his verbal visions, and those of other concept-artists, provide us with an access to insight and value, in something like the way the language of mathematics opens up the inner secrets of nature. No one has ever seen a 2. But pretend that you can know it, and – kazam! – a new world opens up, a world which encompasses and surpasses the world revealed by eyes and ears. No one has really explained the power of mathematics, but no one really has denied its truth. Similarly, might there not be a similar move possible in the domain of concept artistry, even if we cannot explain it? Is this in fact what it is to be alive to wonder – to feel the tug of conceptual dynamics? Or is this just giving philosophical weight to the prettiness of words?
Well, if there is anything to it, then this may be where my flat-footed naturalism can restore its arches. An arch (now turning to the not-footly variety) is raised from the ground up, of course; but its structural integrity relies upon the capstone, which keeps its height by resisting the inclination of the arch stones to collapse in on themselves. Similarly, the ideals we hold keep themselves aloft precisely by pushing against a natural tendency to collapse. Collapse, obviously, is always possible; it is as natural as free-fall, and without gravity, there can be no capstone, and no arch. But collapse can be forestalled; that is the hope of concept artistry.
What all that architectural metaphor amounts to is that the hope of concepts is the suspension of an ideal made possible through the gravity of collapse. We raise an ideal or a principle, knowing full well who and what we are. We recognize at all points our crippling stupidities, our cruel self-deceptions, and our bad faiths made manifest in institutions. And yet … what guards against the collapse of an ideal is an insistence that has the form, “But despite all this….” We manage to respond to the pull of gravity with new revelations, criticisms, and creations, and even at times new practices, all made possible through thinking.
But – again – it’s crucial that the arch remain a terrestrial structure, and not one we imagine as supported by heavenly block-and-tackle. For the little bit that we know tells us that that is impossible engineering. Thinking happens in brains – and not merely in brains, but in vast networks of historical, cultural, political, and economic influences. Our age is resolutely post-miraculous. And yet … we can build arches. Rule by law (though doubly imperfect, both in the rule and the law), refutation through clinical trials, jazz improvisations, after-school programs, poetry readings, vaccinations, and on and on – there stand endless rows of arches one would never have predicted if entranced by the spirit of gravity alone.
But what about eugenics, global slave trade, fascisms, various wicked dimensions of capitalism, and all manner of brutal ideologies? Are these not also arches? They are too well-organized to be seen as anything else. Capstones, we can see, issue from all manner of material. The central moral challenge of the conceptual artist is to develop a practice of arch critique, developing further principles of arch construction which selectively favor some arches over others. How do they accomplish this? How does one establish such high principles? Through the construction of further arches, the answer must be – erecting further ideals, supported by stones placed upon the earth. We turn toward human dignity, toward autonomy, and we elevate the sympathy placed in us through evolution to charity toward strangers.
This is what we do – meaning, this is all humans ever ever done: we construct ideals, both cruel and beneficent, from a variety of building materials: biological, historical, philosophical, psychological, cultural, etc. We engage in critique of those ideals, weighing practical consequences (or rather our judgments of those consequences, issuing from capstones of our own making) against seemingly transcendent principles of design (and note well the seeming). This business of critique follows its own weird logic, as it is conditioned by our own place and time: criticism takes place within a particular realm of concept artistry, one we live and think in. Under the optics of that particular realm, we construct our arches and make our judgments, all the while being acted also upon by decidedly non-archly forces like markets and inherited biases.
When described from this high altitude, it sounds pretty pathetic and ridiculous: we are ants, contemplating the Metaphysics of the Mound as we scurry about shifting materials from one place to another. There is material aplenty here for satirists. But when we ourselves are in the midst of it all, it is gripping and meaningful; and even the satirists are in the grip of the perspective they inhabit as they launch their satire. I guess that it should come as no surprise that, when we are thinking or criticizing or satirizing, concepts are gripping and meaningful. But the wonderful fact is that this illusion (if illusion it is) is possible in the first place. This fact is itself an arch, probably made possible by artefactual language – but more on that in another post.