Monday, November 4, 2013

Embodied Fantasies: From Awe to Artifice

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Embodied Fantasies: From Awe to Artifice
Edited by Suzanne Anker and Sabine Flach
Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers, Bern 2013

Reviewed by Taney Roniger

Across many domains of discursive knowledge – from philosophy and psychology to medicine and neuroscience – there has been increasing interest in the role of the human body in the ever-mutating architecture of consciousness. Long considered the locus of the senses alone and categorically distinct from the superior faculty of reason, the body is now emerging as the fundamental site of cognition whose structural features and modes of contact with the world actively give shape to our concepts and knowledge. In this climate of growing esteem for the body’s place in productive mentation, it is not surprising that we are also witnessing an increased focus on the arts not as a means of sensual pleasure but as a complex and sophisticated mode of knowledge production. Being fundamentally rooted in the senses, who better than the arts to tell us something about the epistemology of the body? Moreover, the body as a subject has a substantial history within the arts and academia; since its rise in the 1960s, discourse surrounding the body has undergone various permutations, remaining central to much art theory and practice throughout the subsequent decades.

What is the role of the senses in thought and imagination? How are the latter embodied – both internally within the theater of consciousness, and externally as inter-subjectively perceptible images? What is the relationship between imagination and knowledge; between art and world-making? These questions form the core of the first volume in the new book series Art/Knowledge/Theory, edited by artist and theorist Suzanne Anker and arts scholar Sabine Flach. Titled Embodied Fantasies: From Awe to Artifice, Volume I brings together contributions by 19 artists and scholars from the visual arts, art history, architecture, psychology, philosophy, and the history of science that explore the notion of embodiment as it relates to knowledge and imagination, or fantasy (the term comes from Aristotle’s word for the imagination).

In the editors’ introduction, embodied fantasies are defined as “the productive activities of the senses of sight which appear in cognitive and mental faculties,” of which dream imagery, hallucinations, and visual thinking are examples. Each contribution focuses on a particular facet of this theme, ranging in scope from the role of touch in human ideation to the phenomenon of hypnagogia to the creative visions of a world-renowned physicist, drawing throughout on a wide array of artistic and extra-artistic examples. As a whole, the collection makes a substantial claim for the relevance and timeliness of “fantasy study” across all domains of culture. As unprecedented advances in science and technology are swiftly eroding distinctions between fantasy and reality (to a greater extent than ever before, the impossible is becoming possible) understanding the relationship between the inner life and the world has never been more urgent.

Undergirding the book’s thesis is a consistently holistic approach to a host of phenomena that have been historically regarded as autonomous and atomistic. Foremost among these is the body itself, which in our Cartesian inheritance has been viewed as a substance wholly separate from thought but which is here emphatically affirmed to be otherwise. While the various embodiment theories current in today’s discourse have made strides toward correcting this basic epistemological error, the latter’s roots are so deep that as a culture we remain largely captive to it. (One need only think of the bulk of conventional Western medicine, to which news of the “mind-body connection” is still either revelation or anathema.) Another crucial corrective – and one that serves as something of a refrain throughout the book – involves the faculty of perception. Conventionally regarded as the passive, mechanical recording of external givens, perception is now to be understood as an active, fully-embodied process by which sensory data are not just “received” but actively given shape, structure, and sense by the mind. Moreover, it has been amply demonstrated that to a large extent we perceive with and through our previously established concepts (i.e., our stored shapes, patterns, and images), unconsciously imposing them on new percepts in the cognitive process. With memory and the imagination involved in all our encounters with the world, rigid distinctions between what is subjective and what is objective can no longer be easily maintained.

This inextricable link between perception and imagination is clearly illustrated in a contribution by scholar Boris Goesl exploring the history of the modern projection planetarium. Inside a planetarium, the projected astronomical constellations are initially perceived as a random distribution of “stars” in an artificial firmament. As the mind seeks to make sense of the visual complexity, however, it begins to impose shapes on the randomness. Perception and imagination working in tandem, the celestial bodies of the beasts and other figures we learn as mnemonic devices begin to emerge. While in this case the emerging figures have been artificially orchestrated for pedagogical purposes (the connecting lines between stars are drawn for us in light), the example serves to demonstrate what occurs all the time in perception – namely, that visual data without order or sense become, via fantasy, embodied images that we retain for future perceptual “projection.”

Along the same lines of this more fluid and holistic approach to understanding the mechanisms of the mind is the emphasis placed here on the unified nature of sensory experience. It has by now been firmly established that cognition is a function of all our capacities acting in unison, such that no sense organ can be thought to act independently of the others (hence the “senses of sight” in the editors’ introduction). What is perhaps less platitudinous is the emerging acknowledgement of the role of spatial sensation in cognition. The body’s orientation (or disorientation) in space – how it apprehends its surroundings and interacts with the perceptual flux – is the subject of several of the contributions, including art historian Dawna Schuld’s essay “Plato’s Shade: Embodying the Cave in Phenomenal Art.” Using Plato’s allegory of the cave as a point of departure, Schuld examines “the cave experience” as a salient feature of contemporary experiential art, focusing on the work of several artists affiliated with the California Light and Space movement. Here, the experience of being immersed in darkness – an experience in which spatial and perceptual conditions become palpable presences – gives rise to insight into the interconnectedness of self and surround, so that “the cave” becomes a condition for enlightenment rather than, as in Plato’s scheme, one of intellectual darkness. Similarly, the kinesthetic sense – also long excluded from the regal realm of the higher cognitive functions – is exposed as a vital mode of thinking in Alexander Schwan’s “Body Calligraphies: Dance as an Embodied Fantasy of Writing.” Using the concept of the body as writing instrument, Schwan demonstrates that all thought and perception is emphatically both corporeal and spatial.

The relational view of cognition advanced here has its philosophical counterpart in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, two presences that loom large in these pages. The basic tenet of phenomenology being that embodied human subjectivity and the world exist in a dynamic relationship, each bringing forth and defining the other, knowledge of the inner life becomes inextricable from knowledge of the world. In an essay by sound artist Alex Arteaga titled “Fantasy in a Non-Given World?,” the author draws on a variant of phenomenology with roots in the biological sciences to further explore the relationship between fantasy and reality. Citing extensively from theoretical biologists Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana, Arteaga elucidates the view that the very structure of the world emerges in the interaction between events “in here” and those “out there.” Fantasy and reality, it turns out, are “functionally intertwined.”

The theoretical model for art that emerges in this volume both reflects and elucidates the new understandings about consciousness, beginning with the complexity of perception. Like perception, art is no longer to be understood as a mere presentation (or re-presentation) of that which exists; rather, it is seen to operate at the dynamic interface between subjective and objective, generating new structures and meanings through the material embodiment of images. In what might be considered a move toward counter-mimesis, much art being produced today shows us not what exists but rather what does not exist, with concepts such as absence, the void, the potentially existent, etc. as recurring themes. In Sabine Flach’s essay on artists Carsten Holler and Matthew Barney, this approach is exemplified by what the author calls the “ongoing subjunctivity” of the work of these two artists. Central to Holler’s and Barney’s work is their sustained immersion in phantasmagoric zones of the “possible but not yet actual” which give rise to new percepts and concepts not encountered before. Similarly, Suzanne Anker’s presentation of her work in “Bio-ethers and Luminous Ores: Welcome to Wonderland” explores the increasingly possible-but-not-yet-actual world of hybrid creatures and other “Wonderland” fantasies that is emerging through advances in bio-engineering. By making sensual and sensible what is not yet but might come to be, art has the capacity not just to show us our future, but, even more significantly, to help us form new concepts with which to navigate it.

The broader cultural implications of this emerging theory of art are sizeable. If art is no longer to be understood as a mirror that reflects back to us what exists or who we are but is acknowledged as having a formative role in how we perceive, art becomes a significant force in shaping consciousness. In a time in which we are still woefully mired in a mechanistic, dualistic epistemology ill-suited for our times, art can, by renouncing mimesis and embracing a new self-understanding, bring forth new ways of being in the world. In her contribution titled “Twilight of the Artworld: From Representation to Ontology in the Work of Matthew Barney,” Thyrza Nichols Goodeve advances just such a model for art as “philosophy that thinks beyond the Cartesian cogito.” Identifying Barney as the mythographer of our new millennium, Goodeve demonstrates how the artist’s work embodies not just fantasies but being itself. By showing us new ontological possibilities that embrace the hybridity and perpetual shape-shifting of postmodern identity and that suggest a cyclical rather than linear conception of time, Barney aligns himself with a host of anti-Cartesian philosophers (e.g., Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault) in the clarion call for a radically new form of being human.

Whether or not one subscribes to theories that place primacy on our embodied inherence in the world, the larger worldview advanced in this collection stands as a vital alternative for an epistemological paradigm long exhausted. For what seems incontestable is that we are moving swiftly in the direction of an irreversible globalism, a condition which, being relational by definition, seems to call for more ecological modes of approach in our collective pursuit of knowledge. Toward this end, Embodied Fantasies offers a particularly compelling argument for the value of transdisciplinary dialogue. Respecting their differences, what is common across all cultures and sub-cultures (including those that define the separate disciplines of knowledge) is a fundamental need to understand ourselves and our relationship to the world. By forging new partnerships between the arts and the sciences, we might achieve insights not accessible to any single domain of knowledge alone. Fortified by a renewed appreciation for the formative role of images and the imagination, these new alliances promise to bring forth new models of reality heretofore unimaginable – perhaps even those addressing what scientists call, for self-evident reasons, “the hard problem” (i.e., the how and why of consciousness). In the book’s final contribution, an essay on the somatic effects on viewers of the work of artists Hiroshi Sugimoto and Adolph Mezne, Ellen Esrock concludes with a fitting exhortation: “Our nights as well as our days are rife with phantasms we create in ordinary and extraordinary moments of viewing. This is a time when the sister arts can join with the life sciences to illuminate our phantasmic interconnections with our world.”