PLAYING THE ART GAME

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SYNOPSIS

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We’ll use a recent exhibition as a jumping off point to explore the dangers of attempting a radical confrontation of the status quo from within the structures and conventions of the ‘art-world’. Our contention is that in being aligned with ‘art’ (either explicitly, through self-application of the label ‘art’, or implicitly through exploiting the structures of ‘art’) radical acts run the danger of negating their own ends; whilst ‘art’ is many things, we’ll consider its potential as an arm of the State – a contortion of form that works to neutralize its true essence, an essence that often has very little to do with the structures of the ‘art-world’; and which, for reasons that will hopefully become clear, is inherently in opposition to restrictive State structures.

We’ll also consider the potential for art to act as a fetish or resting place; a world within which radicalism can be safely play-acted without the threat of substantial change - change that may, at bottom, threaten the structures upon which the ‘art-world’ is built.

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> Introduction


INTRODUCTION

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How does the public participate in political dialogue? What constitutes public opinion? What do people understand “public space” to mean? The significance of the social plays a central role in the discourse on art. Concepts such as participation, collaboration, the social turn, and community-based art have clearly influenced both the production and the reception of art.

The exhibition project Playing the City reveals public space to be a collective, free, and designable space. From 20 April to 6 May 2009, twenty-three international artists, such as Ulf Aminde, Dara Friedman, Dora García, Cezary Bodzianowski, and Sharon Hayes, will turn central Frankfurt into the site of countless activities and situations, ranging from performances by way of installations to “guerrilla actions” that involve the audience in a wide variety of ways.

Playing the City can also be followed on the Internet, as a digital extension of public space: the Web page www.playingthecity.de—created especially for the show—brings together all the video, text, and visual materials, an exhibition calendar, and a blog. It is thus a catalog and exhibition forum in one. An office and exhibition headquarters has been set up in one of the Schirn’s gallery space where the exhibition team can do its work in public: fine-tuning the Web site, answering questions about the exhibition, and organizing, commenting on, and documenting all the actions. In addition, works by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Nasan Tur, among others, and videos of the actions that have already taken place will be shown in the gallery as a film loop.


This text comes from the press release for an event that took place recently in Frankfurt, called Playing the City. The release goes on to mention that the event is a “continuation of the ideas of important avant-garde movements of the twentieth century” and cites Dada, the Situationist International and Fluxus as being amongst these forebears. We’ll be considering the ambitions of this event, and reflecting on the use of viewing actions like these through the lens of ‘art’.


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< Synopsis
> Art and the Everyday

ART AND THE EVERYDAY


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To get a little perspective on the motivations and intentions of Playing the City, it will be handy to consider those avant-garde that it cites in its release. We’ll be interested in why they came about and why they took the form that they did. What were their ideas and motivations, and how might these still be relevant today?


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< Introduction
> Dada

Dada (1916-1922)

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Born against the backdrop of the First World War, Dada was an international network of activists, united by their opposition to ideas and attitudes that were prevailing within both the art world and society at large. They perceived these ideas as corrosive, and as contributing towards a dysfunction, of which the War was seen as an obvious symptom.

This sense of things going wrong was perceived to be an outcome of capitalist-engendered modes of thought; many saw capitalism as a restrictive and oppressive system that is opposed to important needs and ideas. Their actions - their answers to the dysfunction - are the acts that have become Dada.

Status Quo

We are born into the world without knowledge of categories, standards or limitations: to the infant the world is a place of infinite potential. As we grow we become accustomed to the conventions of the society in which we live, drawing borders across an expanse of possibility; we are taught how to move, what to say and what not to say, what to do and what not to do; we are shown that certain actions are acceptable and certain actions are unacceptable; certain thoughts are allowed, whilst others are disallowed; and if we take this information on board successfully then we are able to become a functioning member of society. This process of adjustment is achieved through contact with ideas, which we are exposed to in a number of different environments. Our early ideas will likely originate from within the family or the school, and as we grow they will come from other places, like creeds, and the media. We can describe these sources of ideology as structures, and they are in place to allow the individual to adjust to the norms and standards of a society.

Adjusting to society is a vital process of negotiation and can – if taken at face value - be seen as a great achievement. Yet, in having our thoughts and actions prescribed we run the risk of losing sight of something that was precious to us as infants: our ability to be ourselves. Whilst our ideological structures show us how to fit in, they also help us to lose our individuality; jagged edges are rounded, so that the fit is a smooth one. And in our preoccupation with fitting we may neglect to consider what it is we are striving to fit into; to question smooth over rough, jagged over rounded. In this way the status quo is maintained.

It is in the interests of the State for things to stay as they are, and for people to go on adapting to society the way it currently is. Inasmuch as they function in helping us adapt to the current way of things, we can see these structures of ideas – the family, the school, the creed – as outposts of the State. We are taught to ‘not get into trouble’, ‘to be good’ and ‘to do well’, commonsense imperatives that work in our own interests, whilst also helping to maintain the status quo. So whilst, ostensively at least, the interests of the State may appear to be in common with the interests of the people, they may also be divergent. Through the structures of a society – which are also the telescoped ideologies of the State - conventions, standards, and limits ¬are maintained, allowing the proliferation of the overarching State ideology.

With this in mind, it makes sense that the dysfunctional structures that were detected within society at large were mirrored within the art-world – itself an annex of State ideology - and it was here that Dada fought many of its battles. From their vantage point within ‘culture’, artists were well placed to sniff out corrosion. As Terry Eagleton reminds us, “Culture was about civility, community, imaginative creation, spiritual values, moral qualities, the texture of lived experience, all of which were under siege from a soulless industrial capitalism.”1 If the militant spirit effervesced within culture, then it may have been because it seemed “the only forum where one could still raise questions about fundamental ends and values, in the midst of a society impatient with such airy-fairy notions.”2

Institutionalized Art

The popular paradigm of art is based upon ideas that have their roots in the Renaissance – an era that, emerging sleepy-eyed from pre-capitalist systems, began to place an unprecedented importance upon capital, prizing the initiative of the individual like no time before it. As capitalism grew in influence, its idea-system proliferated throughout society, and ‘art’ was inevitably subsumed. Adapting to its language and conventions, the art-world became another outpost within which, if only inexplicitly, the State could propagate its influence.

Our contemporary conventions showcase the kind of ideology that began to take hold in the wake of the Renaissance, ideology in which the logic of the marketplace prevails. Placing an exchange value upon the art-object allows it to be transformed into a commodity, able to be bought and sold like any other object, and recuperated into a system in which commodity exchange is the lifeblood. Viewing art in this way also serves to depotentiate any threat it may pose to the status quo, because whatever else it may be, it is, in the last, a commodity; familiar and safe.

The commodification of the artwork goes hand in hand with the cult of beauty. If an object can be packaged as beautiful and exotic then its market value can reflect these sought-after characteristics. In this sense, the work of art – art as beautiful object – became a dominant idea, proliferated by the art world and reflected in the ‘beauty-sells’ ideology of society at large.

Linked to this is the fetishization of the ‘masterpiece'. As a thing of beauty and rareity, the art-object can be portrayed as a precious commodity, with mysterious powers of exchange - an idea that also serves to place great importance upon the artist. As creator of the great object, the artist is endowed with stature and importance; his value reflected in his talent, a rare gift from which is birthed the exotic and sought-after art object.

It is no coincidence that the Italian of the Renaissance is seen as “the first individual”3. Within a society that began to place greater importance upon individual achievement, in which every man was free to ‘make himself’, the artist, exploiting the power relations of the emerging capitalist system, was able to establish himself as an important individual, enabling him to rise above the mass of men. An artist’s talent was his peacock’s tail, a source of power within a society in which power relations had become increasingly important. Holding his masterpiece before him, the artist ascended. The heights offered privilege and security; he was distinct from the shapeless masses, and less vulnerable to the manipulations of those in power4. His work, whilst it may have been many other things, was now a justification of unbalanced power relations, a tool of tyranny.

It is in this way that art, despite all else that it was and is, became part of a system of exploitation. Through pushing the cult of the artist – the idea that the artist, gifted as he is, is in some way separate and distinct from the mass of men – art became the preserve of the few, in turn distancing the masses from something vital: creativity. Art was for those talented enough to create it, or rich enough to own it, a microcosm of the class-divisions that were emerging in society at large: “separation […] mis-recognized as autonomy, privilege justified as talent”5.

Democratizing ‘Art’

Dada sought to combat these ideas through rejecting the bourgeois framework of the established art world; to lay waste to outdated notions based upon exploitation in order to make way for new visions. It took form in literature, performances, paintings, poetry and music, most of which were contrary to paradigmic forms of ‘good art’. The sanctity of the precious art-object was purposefully subverted, and the artist-genius booted from his throne. Famously, Duchamp – the usurping court jester - launched an attack on Renaissance values with an attack on the model Renaissance man, scrawling a moustache on that most precious of artefacts, da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’.

Through attacking the ideology of cultural structures, Dada also presented a radical challenge to the dominant ideology of the State. Its proponents described it as ‘anti-art’, suggesting that the true essence of ‘art’ was not simply to be found in those objects and practices deemed as acceptable by the structures of the art-world; indeed that its true essence was in some way being limited and curtailed by these structures. The masses had been robbed of ‘art’, a heist that had led to its incarceration in galleries and museums, with limited visitation rights granted to the public. Dada’s was a plan to steal art back and set it free: to smash the object and release its soul.


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< Art and the Everyday
> The Situationist International

The Situationist International (1957-1972)

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Whilst Dada was largely concerned with the structures of exploitation within culture, the S.I. turned its attention more explicitly to society at large; its battleground was the everyday - the lives we lead day-in, day-out – and, like Dada, it was concerned with how our experience of the world is unjustifiably curtailed by capitalist ideology.

If Dada sought to drag art from the bourgeois confines of the gallery to the democracy of the street, to liberate creativity from the clutch of the ‘artist’ and return it to the masses, the S.I. ran with the idea, seeking to fuse art, and the creativity of the artistic act, with the flow of our everyday lives. The S.I. suggested that art should not necessarily be confined to galleries, where we must go to it; that it can also be intertwined with our everyday experience, as a fundamental aspect of a fulfilled existence.

The Situationists were dissatisfied with the kind of unimaginative and conventional experiences that were sanctioned by society, and saw opportunities to construct an everyday reality that provided greater possibilities for imagination and play. They came up with a number of initiatives that were designed to realize their ideas about creative living, important amongst which was the concept of the situation, which they advocated as a method of grasping and owning experience.

“We must thus envisage a sort of situationist-oriented psychoanalysis in which […] each of the participants in this adventure would discover desires for specific ambiences in order to fulfill them. Each person must seek what he loves, what attracts him. [...] Through this method one can tabulate elements out of which situations can be constructed, along with projects to dynamize these elements.”6

The situation was intended as a unification of life and art. If before the two had been separate - with art as a peripheral experience, little related to the functionalities of everyday life - the situation was intended to reunite them, restoring creativity to the everyday.

Other initiatives included Psychogeography, which was primarily oriented towards seeing and realizing the potential for creativity and play within urban environments. It included, amongst other things, the concept of the dérive; “[...] to dérive was to notice the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind, inclinations, and desires, and to seek out reasons for movement other than those for which an environment was designed. It was very much a matter of using an environment for one’s own ends [...]”7

Linked to the idea of Psychogeography was Unitary Urbanism, which addressed the way that our environments are constructed and the potential they leave for possibilities of movement, imagination and play. Unitary Urbanism analysed the effect of architecture on our experience, with specific regard to the psychological implications of buildings and environments. It sought to merge functional considerations with the potential for play and imagination, in an effort to create environments that would facilitate the overarching Situationist project, that of creative living.

In giving names to the kinds of whimsical and ephemeral urges and ideas that we all probably experience from time to time, the Situationists sanctioned a broader range of movement for the individual within society; the importance of giving these ideas weight, be it though theoretical discourse or visible action, was that they became less easy to dismiss – they were no longer relegated to the realms of simple whimsy or fancy, or condemned to lurk in the shadowy recesses of the mind. Through elevating ideas about play and imagination to the level of serious discourse, they aimed to bring validity to these oft-overlooked aspects of experience.


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< Dada
> Fluxus

Fluxus (1960s)

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Fluxus can be defined as a loose network of artists who shared certain sensibilities. Its project, inasmuch as it had a unified goal, was very similar to that of the S.I.; those involved saw greater potential for movement and expression within daily existence than was currently sanctioned by society, and, through their various artistic projects, sought to live and advocate the creative life.

Whilst it was perhaps less explicitly radical than either Dada or the S.I., Fluxus was motivated by the same essential concerns, and, at bottom, shared the same enemy; the stifling influence of an advanced capitalist system. Inasmuch as Dada could be perceived as a predominantly destructive project – an attempt to destroy the values that it considered corrosive – Fluxus could be seen as largely the opposite. In the wake of Modernism, there was, in a sense, nothing left to destroy. Fluxus emerged at a time when the stable meanings of pre-Modernist society – faith in progress, order, and reason – had already been reduced to rubble; a time, on the cusp of what was to be referred to as Postmodernism, when all that was left to do was play amongst the ruins. If there was nothing left to destroy, then the only thing to do was build. Its project was realized through prolific acts of creation, most of which took place under the watchful eye of its unofficial ‘CEO’, George Macuinas.

Of particular importance were the ideas of participation and do-it-yourself. In advocating creative living, Fluxus pointed towards a way of life that was theoretically accessible to everyone, and through its initiatives it sought, like Dada, to combat the idea that art was the exclusive province of the artist, and to reintroduce the idea of creativity as a valuable part of daily existence.

Fluxus artworks were various in number and content, but notable among them was the Fluxbox. Primarily a way of re-categorizing various everyday objects – objects that we may have become mindless to - in a bid to stimulate imagination, each box would contain an assortment of objects, together with an image or text that aimed to reframe them, to explode their possibilities. One box, for example, contained a number of lengths of dried spaghetti, its title reading ‘flux-snakes.’ Another contained seeds, shells, twigs, keys, and a chesspiece, with the instruction to ‘Spell your name with these objects.’

Also notable were ‘Event Scores’ – these worked in a similar manner to musical scores, only instead of containing musical notation they generally contained written instructions. Dick Higgins score ‘Danger Music Number Eleven’, for example, contains the instruction to “Change your mind repeatedly in a lyrical manner about Roman Catholicism.”

Imagination was key to those involved in Fluxus, and their playful interventions were a way of reinvigorating a fundamental human capacity that was, and is, perpetually in danger of being dulled by a system that serves to limit the truth of the individual.

“Fluxus is inside you, is part of how you are. It isn’t just a bunch of things and dramas but is part of how you live.”8


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< The Situationist International
> Relational Art

Relational Art

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The press release for Playing the City also mentions something called ‘Relational Art’, a catchall term for categorizing forms of art that seek to produce or facilitate human relations. The label is useful to us here inasmuch as it highlights a trend in artworks that seek to diminish the distance between the artist and the audience. Like Dada, Relational Art undermines the traditional post-Renaissance idea of the artist-creator/artist-genius, displacing his position and skewing the conventional relationship between artist and audience, allowing it to become more ambiguous. Here, the artist is able to slide from the role of creator and assume the role of initiator: instead of creating a work which is then consumed by an audience, the initiator of relational art may seek to simply create the conditions for an event – a meeting, a happening, a communing, a conflict – to take place. The opening upstages the artworks 9.

In its challenge to the traditional structure of the artist-audience relationship, Relational Art could be seen to inherit the projects of the avant-gardes. Their goals are concordant: the democratisation of the creative act; the release of its energy into the community, in a bid to encourage relatedness and engagement. Indeed, a glance at the Situationist manifesto for the construction of situations seems to provide us with a blueprint for much Relational Art ...

“[…] the most pertinent revolutionary experiments in culture have sought to break the spectators’ psychological identification with the hero so as to draw them into activity. . . . The situation is thus designed to be lived by its constructors. The role played by a passive or merely bit-part playing ‘public’ must constantly diminish, while that played by those who cannot be called actors, but rather, in a new sense of the term, ‘livers,’ must steadily increase.”10


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< Fluxus
> CAPITALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS

Related posts:-
Social Practice and Studio Practice
Imminent (Double)-Agents
Dissemination of Information

CAPITALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS


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The avant-gardes shared a common protest against aspects of the capitalist system. We’ve brushed upon some of these already, but to gain a broader perspective on the situation it may help to probe a little further.


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< Relational Art
> Emergence and Ideology

Emergence and Ideology

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The conception of the individual offered by pre-capitalist society has little in common with contemporary notions. Whilst we live in a world in which we are urged to make the most of ourselves, in which we can – in theory at least – become whatever we want to become, the frontiers of the world for the pre-capitalist individual were largely governed by birth. Mental and geographical borders were pre-ordained, the lottery of heritage determining his role within society and his place within the world. His life, in large part, was already mapped out for him.

In contrast with modern man, the individual within pre-capitalist society appears to be characterised by a lack of personal freedom; a comparison that presents us with a picture of a limited life. Yet this absence of liberty was not without its benefits. Pre-capitalist society offered a stratified structure, in which the individual had an unchangeable and unquestionable role to play, imbuing life with “meaning which left no place, and no need, for doubt.”11 Having a definitive role within a structured system gave man a feeling of security and belonging.

Within such a strictly compartmentalized system, the image of the individual was indiscernible from that of the whole, and whilst we may interpret this as a lack of freedom, psychologist Erich Fromm suggests otherwise; “Medieval society did not deprive the individual of his freedom, because the “individual” did not yet exist; man was still related to the world by primary ties.”12 He had yet to emerge as distinct from the society that surrounded him, and was, in this sense, still the child, safe in the family-bubble: lacking the broad range of movements afforded to the mature individual, yet nevertheless able to defer personal responsibility and enjoy the security of a cosseted existence.

By the late Middle Ages the importance of capital had grown in along with increasing trade opportunities, weakening the unity and centralization of medieval society13. This change was particularly noticeable in Italy thanks to the commercial advantages offered by its geographical location14, and, as we touched upon earlier, it was here that the individual first began to emerge from his primary ties.

The structures and systems of pre-capitalist society had grown around the everyday activities and aims of a life that had its roots in religious ideology. Economic activities were no more than a means to an end, the economic system a structural necessity that was shadowed by more pious concerns15. Capitalism was to turn this state-of-affairs on its head, placing the onus on the accumulation of capital and turning economic activity into an end in itself - an idea that, as Fromm points out, would have struck the pre-capitalist individual as decidedly irrational.16


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< CAPITALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS
> Affects on the individual

Affects of capitalist ideology
on the psychology of the individual


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With the traditional structures of society breaking down, a new order emerged, one based primarily upon the power relations engendered by capital. To possess it was to possess power, enabling a wider range of movement within a world that had suddenly expanded its borders. His bubble burst, man was faced with freedom.

In reframing man as an individual, capitalism was in many ways the uncompromising parent, giving the boot to its complacent child. It pronounced in no uncertain terms that the time had come for him to stand on his own two feet, prompting, on a societal scale, a process that Fromm refers to as individuation. Akin to the ‘flowering’ of an individual, individuation is essentially a course of maturation, in which the individual emerges from the sanctuary of the family (from what Fromm refers to as ‘primary ties’) into self-sufficiency, relinquishing comforting restrictions in order to face freedom - a freedom that demands they take full ownership of their thoughts, and actions.

In promoting the emergence of the individual and the accompanying severance of primary ties, capitalism can be seen as an important advancement in the maturation of society; not only did it free the individual from traditional bonds, it also contributed tremendously to the growth of an active, critical, responsible self17: as the individual saw the firm ground beneath him gradually begin to crack and give way, he realized he would have to learn to swim or risk drowning.

With the dissolution of pre-capitalist structures, man was offered a range of movement that was formerly unimaginable. Freed from the ties that had held him in place, he was, in theory at least, able to make of his life what he wished. The responsibility for his life was placed firmly into his own hands, his destiny unwritten.

Whilst looking good on paper, this newfound sense of liberation was not without its drawbacks. The security and structure of pre-capitalist society was vanishing along with the inherent sense of purpose and direction that it offered, developments that threatened to constellate anxiety within the individual who was used to the chloroform-comfort of primary ties. Freedom had exposed the individual to the elements, making him feel isolated, insignificant and powerless. Unknown machinations were now taking place around him, the earth rumbling with the new momentum of free trade.

How did man adapt to these new developments, and in what ways did they affect his thinking?

Market Orientation

In freeing man from his ties, capitalism offered the potential of a new, and better, life. His tethers cut, he was free to rise as high as he wished - but this privilege was not his alone. The heights were up for grabs, and in order to gain the best view he would have to ensure that he rose higher than those around him. The road to success – to the most advantageous view – was achieved through selling; if man could sell successfully then he was able to become successful. Instead of selling enough to get along – to maintain an age-old lifestyle – he was prompted to sell as a means to advancement. No longer tied to his place, through selling more he could break with tradition and imagine something new.

With the best views exclusive, the individual was forced to consider his product within a marketplace that was both more expansive and more competitive. Pious concerns were replaced with economic ones; everyday discourse coloured by the language and ideology of the marketplace. This state of affairs has reached its apotheosis in recent times. If something does not sell successfully – if not enough people want it – then it is deemed as a failure. Within this ideology, quantity becomes a key determinant of success; the more people want something, the more successful it is. The notion of success becomes confused with market-values, and success in all domains becomes defined by the ideology of the marketplace. Only a few people turned up to your party, so it was not a success. You only have a few friends, so you are not a success.

It is testament to the pervasiveness of capitalist ideology that we even come to think of ourselves as products, to be carefully crafted to sell to the highest number. Market ideology pervades all aspects of life, its fiction transforming us into commodities, and our relations into a series of marketplaces within which we sell ourselves: as employees, as sex objects, as lovers, as friends.

The concept of the ‘glamour model’ is an obvious example; with her blonde hair, bronzed skin and practiced repertoire of facial expressions, she is as finely-tuned to sell to a specific market as the newest model of executive saloon; she sells herself, and in doing so promotes to the masses the ‘look’ that she is selling – she tells us, on behalf of our collective ideology, ‘this is what the market wants, and this is how you sell yourself to it” - the market, in this instance, being ‘men’ - or at least, the State’s idea of men.

“Flesh is converted into sign”, the body “etched, pummelled, pumped up, shrunk and remoulded”18 in order to sell more effectively. Not only is the specific look of the glamour model pushed, but also the very idea that women must ‘sell’ in the first place, proliferating the mentality of the system. In her role as a tool of the State, the glamour model serves to teach a generation of girls how to kit themselves out to become successful commodities in a competitive marketplace.

Market-orientation is not restricted to glamour-model clones; most of us, at points, feel the pressure to sell ourselves in some way; and with technology increasing the forms through which we communicate, it is also - as a recent article on a “narcissism epidemic” among young girls suggests - proliferating the places in which one is required to self-promote.19

With all this emphasis on selling, we begin to think of the conventions of the system as innate and unavoidable. All motives become inextricably linked with selling and individual gain, and “what are you trying to sell?” becomes the permeating dictum. Our view of humanity is bent and twisted to fit a system that often works to encourage the worst.

Competition

In freeing man from the constraints of a stratified system, capitalism appeared to promote the idea of equality; man was free to define himself, and, importantly, to advance himself within society. Yet, through pushing the idea of economic advancement the system also placed emphasis upon the notion of competition, setting one individual against another.

We’ve seen how the ideology of the marketplace can infiltrate numerous aspects of our life, making us conscious of what we are selling, and how well we are selling it. This emphasis on selling inevitably promotes competitive relations, because in selling something - be it a skill, talent, idea or look - there will, more often than not, be others selling the same thing.

As an essential component of capitalist ideology, the notion of competition has suffused the popular consciousness, its influence spreading beyond purely economic relations. To compete seems like a very natural thing to have to do, and we have Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to remind us that competition is in the natural way of things. Yet, whilst it may be an inevitable aspect of human relations, it remains a singular aspect upon many. The emphasis that capitalism places upon this idea, and the way in which it is communicated to us can frequently be problematic.

In many instances a competitive mindset is aroused when it needn’t be, through setting arbitrary limits on desirable resources. Psychologist Ellen Langer refers to this tendency as a ‘belief in limited resources’, and describes the effect that it can have in some of the most unlikely areas of existence. She gives the example of a couple going through a divorce, with both parents competing for custody of their child; “Who will “get” the child? This may be the wrong question. What is actually at stake? Is it the physical presence of the child that the parents want, or is it a certain relationship with the child? Is it the child’s body or the child’s unlimited love they seek? […] A mindful consideration of what is actually being sought might show that there is enough of the so-called limited resource to go around.”20

Langer’s example shows us how a competitive mindset can invade relations beyond the economic, and can become a default mode of exchange where, often, it needn’t be. When the objects of our desire are perceived as limited, it follows that to get what we want we will have to compete for it. Whilst it may be the case that many things are by nature limited, it is often from the emphasis upon the necessity to compete that dysfunction can arise. Fromm describes the effects of a competitive mindset upon the individual; “His relationship to his fellow men, with everyone a potential competitor, has become hostile and estranged; he is free – that is, he is alone, isolated, threatened from all sides.”21

Advancement and Careerism

Whilst allowing the individual to flourish in formerly unthinkable ways, capitalism also unharnessed his urge for power and status. Our example of the Renaissance artist, using his art as a tool of power, offers us an early indicator of a mindset that would become commonplace throughout society.

Our gifts, the things that separate us - be it talent, beauty or intelligence – are instrumentalized, their function as occasions for celebration and communion seconded to their utility as tools of advancement. State ideology urges its citizens to ‘be someone’, a fiction that is communicated and strengthened through stories of success (from the everyday tale of achievement and victory featured in the pages of the local paper, through to the latest celebrity autobiography) and our worship of those who have ‘made it’ (celebrities; those who are top of their field; ‘geniuses’). To progress economically and secure a favourable position within a free-for-all system, the individual is compelled to draw upon whatever resources allow him to achieve this. In this sense, the gift – as long as it is valued by society – takes its place as an element of a wider tyranny; both reason, motivation, and justification for the attainment of power.

The collapse of the static pre-capitalist system, in which every man was guaranteed a place, cast the future in shades of uncertainty. Man was free to define his destiny, and in order to safeguard it he was compelled to consider his prospects within the market. Self-preservation became an important consideration, and careerism a defence against fear of the future. Within the capitalist system man was constantly urged to think of himself, if only to avoid coming a cropper further along the line.

Capitalism promoted rampant self-interest, whilst at the same time directing energies away from something that may have helped man to face his fear of the future: self-development.

Self-development

We’ve touched upon how, in ousting the individual from the bosom of society into a position of self-responsibility, capitalism marked a milestone in the psychological maturation of society. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that capitalism provided the conditions for growth, laying the responsibility for development at the feet of the individual. Many were simply not ready to accept this responsibility and instead of learning the new steps that were required of them, regained equilibrium through what Fromm refers to as ‘secondary bonds.’ Through these means the individual willingly annihilated himself within the whole, returning once more to a state of reliance.

We achieve self-annihilation in a variety of ways, not least through the denial of self-development. Perversely, self-development is perhaps the very thing that would allow us, following the severance of our primary bonds, a positive equilibrium once again.

But what do we mean when we talk of self-development? It involves, amongst other things, thinking about the self – about our beliefs, our ideas, our ambitions. In thinking about these important things we are able to take responsibility for them, to make the thoughts our own, and thus counteract the assumptive ignorance of received wisdom. We are able to form a personal life-philosophy, regardless of how rudimentary it may be.

It does not mean a wrapping up within the self, or a constant state of navel gazing: self-development is not selfishness. Rather, to think about the self is to learn to know and to love the self – it is an affirmation of who you are. To listen to what you need; to take time to know yourself, and to allow yourself the room to grow, is to turn out towards the world. In loving yourself you are more able to love others, and to be more amenable in your relations. It is an act in service of the community, because through finding and developing the self the individual becomes more able to service the community. Self-development, as perverse as it may seem, involves a relinquishing of the self and is, in the last, an act of turning outwards.

The Flight from Self-development

Thinking about the self is often not a comfortable or easy thing to do, and fortunately the system provides us with a variety of ways in which we can avoid doing this.

The idea of self-development is itself denigrated through a widespread denial of the self, and through watchwords like ‘selfish’ and ‘self-indulgent’ that allow us to circumnavigate other words, like ‘self-analysis’. We deny ourselves - our needs and development - in the interests of society; which, in the last, are the interests of the State. A paradoxical smokescreen is put in place around this denial, with contemporary society seemingly placing more importance on the individual than at any time previously. Ours is, we are frequently reminded, a selfish society: it is an old saw to point out that consumerism is rampant; that we like nothing more than to spend on the latest commodities and indulge in hedonistic abandon, all the while moving further away from so called ‘traditional values’.

But what is really happening here? Is this fiction of the contemporary individual really about self-affirmation? Perhaps what we are affirming is the pseudo-self; a safe assemblage of the self afforded to us by the system, replete with pre-ordained desires, opinions, and ambitions – that confuses its own voice with that of its maker.

Through its distractions - its motion - the system helps keep us from standing still too long, aiding us in our flight from the true self. Work keeps us busy for a large proportion of our time, and when we aren’t busy with work we are offered a variety of activities to help maintain the momentum. Through staying busy we are able to preserve a sense of self-identity that reflection dispels. When we are at work in the world we have a seeming solidity22. Without self-knowledge we remain unaware that our structures rest in water, and the confusion of the depths – with its promise to disorient and inspire - is kept from us.

These distractions are undoubtedly not, in most cases, crafted with this sinister purpose in mind; it is the systems into which they are birthed that are rigged for maximum manipulation. It is the way that we are taught to consume, the compulsions that we learn unconsciously and take as givens – this is where the dysfunction lies.


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< Emergence and Ideology
> Nanny State

Related posts:-
Sell Out
Sell Yourself
Motivations
Make it Big, or Make it Right?

Nanny State

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The system does our thinking for us on the things that matter – politics, ethics, philosophy – so that we needn’t concern ourselves. Complicated issues are made still more so by all sorts of methods to befog them. Knowledge is divided into a series of domains, to which the public has varying degrees of access. Certain knowledge becomes ‘specialist’ and is confined to the domains of the ‘specialisms’, where it is understood by ‘specialists’. When specialist knowledge does trickle down to the masses, it is invariably communicated in a condescending and obfuscating fashion, by a communications establishment that may be more interested in making money than actually communicating (Doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre on the media - “Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong? […] It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means.”23)

The insignificance of the individual is furthered through the vast and overwhelming nature of things. Modern ghost-stories tell of the horrors of biological weaponry; clips of military hardware overwhelm us with their brute force, bringing the alien and unfathomable sounds and dimensions of war machinery into the collective imagination, the collective nightmare; news programmes serve up conflicts in places we will never visit, and barely knew existed; concrete and glass tower over us, metal flies by us in a cloud of exhaust fumes, music becomes louder, faster.

In his analysis in 1942, Fromm made reference to Mickey Mouse, suggesting that the popularity of the cartoon was partly attributable to its archetypal display of the ‘small guy’ winning out over the ‘big guy’, a way for culture to maintain the illusion of control. In our age, we could perhaps just as easily look to the likes of Transformers as fulfilling this function: machines mesh in a clattering ballet of mechanised violence, and yet, from the carnage it is man – and the precious, unbroken sanctity of his body - that emerges triumphant. Amongst the crash and roar of advanced mechanisation, myths like Transformers sell the illusion that we are in control, whilst ultimately working to steal away our sovereignty.

Film, along with television, advertising, and other forms of storytelling, also serves to sell us a variety of fantasies and illusions that work to satisfy our collective and individual ideas of utopia, pacifying any urge we may have to actually realize these visions. As theorist Terry Eagleton explains, “By encouraging us to dream beyond the present, it may also provide the existing social order with a convenient safety-valve. Imagining a more just future may confiscate some of the energies necessary to achieve it.”24

As we touched upon, the system assigns us with a version of ourselves – the pseudo or social self – through telling us what we want and what we need, a process that is achieved via the various ideological structures of the State. Our cultural structure defines us through the popularization of certain types of art, the telling and re-telling of certain stories. Our communications structure, through its adverts and media stories, shapes our wants and needs, and delineates our ethical borders. Finally, our educational structure prepares us for what is to come through a process of pruning, initiating us into the customs of society and defining our conduct within it. The boundaries of our meanings are drawn by the system, and to look beyond them is to risk condemnation.

Through these systems a social-self is assigned to us, and this is the self that resides within the ‘public domain’; here the vibrant colours – the individual idiosyncrasies - of a society are mixed into a grey-brown soup. It is mostly a safe place, where risks cannot be taken; where the exposure of the individual – the true self – chances provocation and offence. “[The system] labels all actions ‘individualistic’ […] while subterraneanly, in despised everyday domains, it necessarily furnishes, as in a delirium, the elements for a collective formation … With this raw material, we must occupy ourselves – with gray buildings, market halls, department stores, exhibitions.”25

The public domain is accompanied by a ‘public voice’, exemplified by prevalent and popular figures like Big Brother’s Davina McCall, mercifully defining the limits of our intelligence and critical capacity with various proclamations on our behalf - “Did you understand that? No, neither did I!”

In the absence of the firm ground of self-knowledge, commodities - red-blood cells of the system - become ways of buoying up the self. The less an individual feels he is being somebody, the more need he has for possessions26; we come to define ourselves through what we own, the commodity reflecting a perceived sense of self. Our objects surround us, telling us everything about ourselves; who we are, how important we are, the ways in which we matter. If we can surround ourselves with enough objects then it follows that we would no longer need to look inside to know the self, and to love the self would simply be to love our possessions.

The State is the bad parent or the unconcerned lover – rich, and disinterested – showing affection through money and expensive gifts. Psychological self-development, as a concrete reality (as opposed to a fictional utopia, the likes of which we see frequently in modern forms of storytelling) is not in its interests; a nation of people who think for themselves would not fit into the capitalist mould quite so easily, and we may even begin to question the sanity of our various structures and systems. For this reason, amongst others, self-development is not on the popular agenda. Our capacity for critical thinking is dulled, and our political energy lost within the white-noise of complications, obfuscation and mistruths. Psychological immaturity becomes the status quo.

Capitalism allowed us the freedom to define ourselves in a way that was previously unavailable. Self development would, in Fromm’s view, make redundant the methods of escape that we currently employ to maintain our equilibrium, relieving us from ‘negative freedom’ and helping us toward ‘positive freedom’ – that is, freedom that is founded upon a positive assertion of the self and the world, rather than denial and escape.

We’ll return to the idea of self-development and psychological maturity later on, and look into its implications both for the individual and society.

It is worth noting that when we talk of the distractions of the system (such as cultural objects, like films or television programmes) our criticism is not so much of the objects themselves – which may often be created with the best of intentions - but with the ways in which they are used; in other words, the systems which instrumentalize them, put them to use. To observe that films are often part of a machinery of distraction, that they sanitize and sublimate tendencies that may go against the status quo, is not necessarily to condemn those involved in making films as conscious agents of the State. On the contrary, those who create these objects may often do so as a positive expression of creativity, and in our consumption of these objects we are able to appreciate and celebrate this creativity. This transaction – the sharing of ideas and meaning through culture – is a fundamental one to our species, and we cannot condemn these objects, or those that create them, for their part in it. If a malignancy exists, then it is in the structures and systems that surround these innate, and harmless, transactions. It is often our systems that force us onto the self-destructive paths that we tread, and these objects may be as much victims to them as we are.27


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< Affects on the Individual
> Relations Within the System

Relations within the system

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Capitalism tends to promote what psychologist Ellen Langer has termed ‘outcome-orientation’; “When children start a new activity with an outcome orientation, questions of “Can I?” or “What if I can’t do it?” are likely to predominate, creating an anxious preoccupation with success or failure rather than drawing on the child’s natural, exuberant desire to explore. Instead of enjoying the colour of the crayon, the designs on the paper, and a variety of possible shapes along the way, the child sets about writing a “correct” letter A.”28

Outcome orientation can be seen as a symptom of the kind of wide-scale instrumentalism that is promoted by the system. Just as our actions are frequently determined by their potential for success, and our talents transformed into tools of advancement, our relationships are also often defined by utility.

We can see an illustration of this in popular entertainment programmes like The Apprentice, in which contestants define their relationships to each other purely through the rules of the game, one that necessitates the ruthless relations of market-oriented instrumentality. To each other, the contestants are first and foremost competitors, a fact that is reflected in their frequent lack of compassion towards one another. To their superiors they are subordinated, at the arse-end of an inherently unbalanced power relationship. The underlying justification for these relationships - relations that, in another context, may appear decidedly dysfunctional - is the dictum ‘Its only business’. We are, then, under no illusions; these are business relationships, dictated by the rules of the marketplace: compassion needn’t come into it.

Whilst The Apprentice may simply be an exaggerated pantomime, or a cynical fiction, its relationships help illustrate a widespread truth; that often, instrumentality is our primary bond to each other. The instrumental relationship transforms us into ‘things’, there to be manipulated for various ends. We see the effects of instrumental relations in the workplace, where the relationship between employer and employee is often, as Fromm suggests, permeated by a “spirit of indifference […] It is not a relationship of two human beings who have any interest in the other outside of this mutual usefulness.”29 Our relationship to our work, the thing that we may spend most of our time engaged with, is often just as devoid of love and imagination, existing purely as a means to an end; a way to make money. Again, the system defines the limits of our meanings, encouraging unimaginative bare-bones relationships that speak a language of cold necessity.

As with competitiveness, it may be that instrumentality is an unavoidable outcome of human relations. If this is so, then we must question the sanity of a system that seeks to emphasize this idea rather than minimize it.


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< Nanny State
> FROM '+' TO '-'

FROM '+' TO '-'

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In our analysis of capitalism we’ve hoped to highlight dysfunctional elements of the system in order to show why the avant-gardes found it problematic. Their willingness to embrace freedom – to think for themselves, to own themselves – cast them in opposition to a system that prefers to limit the truth of the individual.

Terry Eagleton paints a picture in which radicals are “saddled with inconvenient beliefs”30, in which the radical does not so much have their sights set on the future, in dreams of a utopia, as in the present, in working to remedy the deficiencies of the here and now. If we elaborate on this image, we can see society as pathologized, with the radical as part-symptom (neurosis), part-cure (therapist); drawing attention to dysfunction, whilst working to remedy it. The radical-as-therapist hopes to bring society towards a more ‘healthy’ state of being; a state in which the individual (and, by extension, society) could flourish to a greater extent than is presently possible.

In this image, Dada, with its emphasis on destruction, becomes a Jungian neurosis - a rogue element of the psyche, undermining and sabotaging its conscious intentions. Jung saw the psyche as self-regulating, balancing the conscious desires of the ego with the needs of the unconscious. When the actions of the ego caused an imbalance, then a neurosis would result; in this sense, part of the function of the neurosis is to bring attention to what is being overlooked, thus restoring balance to the whole.

If we look at society in the time leading up to Modernism and Dada, we see an emphasis on certain values. The grand-narrative of Progress was in full swing, a fiction that served to elucidate the importance of order and reason. With discoveries and advancements within many fields, man felt he was heading for great heights; yet, with his gaze set on the stars, he failed to notice that his feet were still on the ground, still treading mud.

From the viewpoint of the psychology of the individual, Enlightenment ideology was unbalanced; in its rush towards the horizon, it denied those aspects that may hold man back - his irrationality, his destructiveness, his shadow - a widespread repression that forced these forgotten elements into the collective unconscious. Within an individual, if important contents are denied they will often surface in the form of a neurosis - a stutter from the perfect speaker, a tic in the perfect face - and we could see Modernism as a societal version of this, kicking down the building blocks in a inexplicable rage. This is why Modernism was, in many ways, a destructive phenomenon: in laying waste to the values of pre-Modernist society, it restored balance to the collective psyche.

Thus, in our image, Dada is about pathology or deficiency, a neurosis that served to bring attention to overlooked elements. As we’ve seen, the S.I. and Fluxus were arguably more constructive than Dada. They may have sprung from a similar place, from the same pathology, but in their constructive aspects we could see a resolution to push further. Whilst they were concerned with the pathological aspects of society, the S.I. and Fluxus also sought to offer ideas on how the healthy life should be lived - on how the individual could flourish. In our image, they become therapeutic movements, hoping to engage society in a constructive dialogue, to offer ways forward toward a more healthy existence.

If Dada sought to bring attention to the dysfunction in its bid to return society to health, then the S.I. and Fluxus proposed a way of life that would maintain this health. We can see Dada’s concern as being with illness; with the path from the negative (-) to the neutral (0); whilst the others were largely concerned with flourishing; with the path from 0 to + .

Our psychological analogies prove pertinent, as we see in the work of many psychologists similar concerns and ideas to those of the avant-gardes. In dealing directly with the various forms of pathology that occur within a society, psychologists can offer us valuable insight into it. In order to give us some perspective on the projects of the avant-gardes we’ll consider the work of a few psychologists, and hope to highlight parallels between the two.


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< Relations Within the System
> Ellen Langer: Mindfulness

Ellen Langer:
Mindfulness

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Langer’s concept of mindfulness can be likened to a system of continual self-assessment – it is, in a sense, about keeping tabs on yourself. To be mindful is to be aware of the categories and mindsets that you are living by. It is to be conscious and in control of what you are doing, to take responsibility for your thoughts and actions, and to own them and to update them accordingly.

To become mindless is to lose awareness of the self. Whilst an individual could be described as mindless, it would perhaps be more helpful to describe them as being mindless; an important distinction, which implies that mindlessness is not a position or a condition, like ‘depressed’ or ‘optimistic’: rather, as a lack of mindfulness, it is an ever-present danger, something that we can all fall into at any time.

Fluidity

“Just as mindlessness is the rigid reliance on old categories, mindfulness means the continual creation of new ones. Categorizing and recategorizing, labeling and relabeling as one masters the world are processes natural to children. They are adaptive and inevitable part of surviving in this world.”31

In practical terms, the more fluid we are able to keep ourselves – the less we define ourselves by binary oppositions – the better equipped we are to adapt to new information and to grow. This does not mean abandoning positions entirely; rather it would be to acknowledge that the borders of our distinctions are porous rather than clearly defined. In keeping the borders of our categories permeable and fluid we are better able to adjust to a world of shaded differentiations.

Mindfulness does not imply abandoning meaning. We each have our own vocabulary of meanings, or fictions, which, over time, we add to or subtract from. Some may establish their guiding fictions early in life and preserve them unchanged, living by the same meanings throughout their lifetime, whilst others may be constantly adding to a solid base of meanings - or may simply overhaul their whole vocabulary.

If we view our vocabulary of meaning as a city, then to be mindful would be to keep the borders of your city open - to allow new information access, and to allow old information to depart. It would also be to acknowledge that your borders are flexible, that they can expand to accommodate a growing population. A mindless approach would be to set unmovable city limits, to limit the population, and close the borders to strangers.

We can draw parallels to this idea in psychologist James Hillman’s description of the ‘Psychic Hermaphrodite’. Hillman (referencing Adler) suggests that the true reality of the world is one of shaded differentiations, rather than oppositions. He uses the figure of the hermaphrodite as an antidote to oppositional thinking, as a figure whose presence keeps us mindful of the truth of things and the unreality of our constructs.

“So when we meet antithetical thinking, our question will no longer be how to conjunct, transcend, find a synthetic third, or breed an androgyne. For such moves take the antithesis literally, preventing the mind from moving from its neurotic constructs.”32 To be mindful is to remember the hermaphrodite, to remember that our categories may help us but that they are, in the last, not to be taken literally. The hermaphrodite reminds us that, whilst we may find comfort in our binary constructs – in our labels and definitions, our border-lines and distinctions – these are all fictions: vessels crafted upon a sea of differentiations; upon the murky depths of endless possibilities.

Philosopher Gilles Deleuze has also referred to this idea, in what he termed the paradox of infinite identity33. Whilst we mostly live in a world in which meanings are fixed – in which a man is a man, and hot water is hot water - Deleuze directs us to the point at which these fixities break down. So, whilst hot water may be hot, it may also be cooling; in this sense, it is constantly becoming cooler than it was. When we begin to look beyond the static definition of ‘hot water’ we see the ways in which the water is slipping this definition; that, in fact, it is not necessarily a static thing – it is becoming cooler (unless it is being heated, in which case it is becoming hotter). Deleuze refers to this constant flux as ‘pure becoming’.

He goes on to say, “Paradox is initially that which destroys good sense as the only direction, but it is also that which destroys common sense as the assignation of fixed identities.”34 With this idea of paradox we can draw links to Hillman’s notion of the hermaphrodite; both urge us to keep in mind the true nature of our ‘fixed’ definitions.

Being mindful (or mindless) does not imply a resting point (i.e. ‘I am mindful, as part of my structure of being’) rather it connotes motion; it is to recognise the flux of life, that motion and change are in the nature of things and to be aware and adaptive to this change, if necessary. Mindfulness is non-culminative – in other words, a certain number of mindful acts do not mean that an individual has become ‘mindful’; every moment is potentially a new test, a new opportunity; we can, and do, slip from mindfulness at any point. It is then, not a mark of excellence, or a summit to be reached and sat upon – to advocate mindfulness is not to speak of attaining perfection. Langer recognizes that we all slip into mindlessness at points, that our fallibility is part of what makes us human; but to recognize how and where we slip is to take greater responsibility for ourselves.

As an aspect of self-responsibility, mindfulness is linked to the notion of ‘psychological maturity’ that we referred to earlier. We’ve seen how to be mindful is to become aware of the meanings and categories that we are living by, and to cultivate the ability to be flexible. To be aware that our way – our meanings – are not the only ones is also to become more amenable to the stranger, and the world of foreign meanings and values that he could potentially represent. It is to understand that all possible meanings are inherent, and latent, within ourselves and that the stranger is simply a different constellation of the self. Whilst, in order to flourish, some may need the firm base of meaning more than others, to be aware of the flexibility of meaning is to be less afraid of the unknown. There are clearly ethical implications to the mindful existence.

And Capitalism

To be mindful is in many ways to go against the flow of the system. Earlier on we examined how in a market-oriented society relationships can often become instrumental, defined by the restrictive horizons of their function. And so, one human being, out of everything he is and could be, becomes an ‘employee’ and another, from all the possibilities of his existence, becomes an ‘employer’; likewise, someone becomes ‘customer’ and someone else ‘shop assistant’, and it is often all too easy to forget to see beyond these functional labels.

If instrumental relations are an unavoidable outcome of the system, then to be mindful – to attempt to see the relations that lie beyond instrumentality – is to think and act in a radical way.


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< FROM '+' TO '-'
> D.W. Winnicott: Creative Living

D.W. Winnicott:
Creative Living

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For Winnicott, creativity is the retention throughout life of something belonging to infant experience: the ability to create the world. He suggests that when a child is born it experiences for a short time a feeling of omnipotence; at first it is only aware - in a limited manner - of its own existence, over time becoming aware of the world of objects and ideas that predated its birth. When the child is born, the world is born along with it - everything is created anew, and for the first time. This feeling of omnipotence is facilitated by the mother, who, if good enough, provides the child with what it needs when it needs it, giving the impression that, by will alone, what was needed was created.

From this (lack of) awareness comes the feeling of omnipotence; that everything the child experiences it also creates. As it grows it will come to see that this is not the case; things will not go its way, and the world will assert its own inevitable will: the child is impinged upon, shown who’s boss.

Freud termed this impingement the Reality Principle; it is, in a sense, the process of disillusionment, a coming to terms – or a tug of war - with objective reality. The infant experience is, then, a creative one; creativity is a way of endowing things with meaning, giving the infant the confidence to emerge, step by step, into the world; it allows them to plant roots into the soil, and stand firm in the wind. As its illusions are shattered the breeze picks up force, and creativity – the ability to personalize, to mythify, to assert the self – strengthens us against its incursion. This is why, as Winnicott suggests, we do not entirely relinquish our creativity: not only does it defend us against the impingement of outside factors, it also allows us the confidence to go forth, to engage with things, to slip and tumble; to play.

Winnicott provides us with an instance of creative living in an everyday scenario; “I know that one way of cooking sausages is to look up the exact directions [...] and another way is to take some sausages and somehow to cook sausages for the first time ever. The result may be the same on any one occasion, but it is more pleasant to live with the creative cook, even if sometimes there is a disaster or the taste is funny and one suspects the worst. The thing I am trying to say is that for the cook the two experiences are different: the slavish one who complies gets nothing from the experience except an increase in the feeling of dependence on authority, while the original one feels more real, and surprises herself (or himself) by what turns up in the mind in the course of the act of cooking. When we are surprised at ourselves, we are being creative, and we find we can trust our own unexpected originality. We shall not mind if those who consume the sausages fail to notice the surprising thing that was in the cooking of them, or if they do not show gustatory appreciation.”35

With Winnicott we see the democratisation of creativity; it is a capability within each of us, and is not confined, as convention may dictate, to the realms of ‘art’ – an opinion that must surely have been shared by those involved in the avant-gardes. If creativity is a way of seeing, then it is suffused into everyday life by simply having a personal view of everything: something that, as Winnicott suggests, infants excel in.

“In creative living you or I find that everything we do strengthens the feeling that we are alive, that we are ourselves. One can look at a tree (not necessarily at a picture) and look creatively. If you have ever had a depression phase of the schizoid sort (and most have), you will know this in the negative. How often I have been told: ‘There is a laburnum outside my window and the sun is out and I know intellectually that it must be a grand sight, for those who can see it. But for me this morning (Monday) there is no meaning in it. I cannot feel it. It makes me acutely aware of not being myself real.’

Although allied to creative living, the active creations of letter writers, poets, artists, sculptors, architects, musicians, are different. You will agree that if someone is engaged in artistic creation, we hope he or she can call on some special talent. But for creative living we need no special talent. This is a universal need, and a universal experience, and even the bedridden, withdrawn schizophrenic may be living creatively in a secret mental activity, and therefore in a sense happy.”36


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< Ellen Langer: Mindfulness
> Erich Fromm: Spontaneity

Erich Fromm:
Spontaneity

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We’ve already touched briefly upon Fromm’s notion of individuation, which we've described as a course of maturation that faces each individual. As children we generally live under the protection of a higher power, the parent or guardian, and our bondage to them provides us with a sense of security. In growing we are forced from beneath their wing and out onto the path of maturation; we are free to fly our own course, to make up our own minds. In becoming free from primary bonds – those ties that are characterized by our relationship to our parents, that imply a lack of individuality, but also a sense of security and orientation – we are faced with the bewildering reality of our independence; a situation that, as we’ve seen, was brought about on a societal scale by the advance of capitalism. If we are unable to bear the anxiety that is constellated by our state of isolation and unsurety, we may choose to escape our freedom and flee once more into bondage.

In our escape we abdicate the responsibility of maturity; we flee the path on which we are set, fearing the vulnerability of open space, and the interminability of the horizon, running instead for the safety of cover, of stasis. To walk the path is to realise the self as a totality; we must become transparent to ourselves, so that as little as possible remains repressed. When we can see through ourselves we are able to more fully be ourselves.

Here we can see parallels to the idea of mindfulness; becoming transparent implies recognising our nature; understanding, for example, the meanings that are guiding us, the categories and assumptions that we are living by, and how they are influencing our thoughts and actions.

When we are able to be ourselves we are more able to be spontaneous, and spontaneity is, for Fromm, an expression of “genuine happiness”37. He points to small children as an example of those who are able to live spontaneously; “They have an ability to feel and think that which is really theirs; this spontaneity shows in what they say and think, in the feelings that are expressed in their faces.” He goes on to say, “Whether it be the fresh and spontaneous perception of a landscape, or the dawning of some truth as the result of our thinking, or a sensuous pleasure that is not stereotyped, or the welling up of love for another person – in these moments we all know what as spontaneous act is and may have some vision of what human life could be if these experiences were not such rare and uncultivated occurrences.”38

Fromm is careful to qualify his ideas about individuality, reminding us that the path from primary bonds to an realization of the self is also the path towards new bonds; those built on an affirmation of the self, rather than a denial; “Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness without sacrificing the integrity of his self; for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world – with man, nature, and himself.”39

Individuality, for Fromm, implies uniqueness, with spontaneity as the ability to affirm this difference in the presence of the community. It is the opposite of the pseudo-self or the social-self, which is always a compromise to conformity.

Fromm’s notion of spontaneity is closely tied to Terry Eagleton’s ideas about love. To become transparent – to see the self and accept what we see – is to love the self; and to love it is to be disinterested in it – and here we can draw a distinction between self-love and selfishness. Disinterestedness is in many ways an opposite to selfishness, the latter involving an incessant concern with the self founded on a lack of self-love. To be disinterested is not to not have interests, rather it is just that our interest lies in another rather than in ourselves. The selfish person is unable to be disinterested because their sense of self rests on decidedly unsteady foundations, necessitating a constant looking downwards – and inwards – a paranoid self-monitoring that fears dissolution. In contrast, the person who is disinterested - who loves the self - has firm foundations, allowing them to direct their gaze outwards into the world, safe in the knowledge that their bedrock is solid.

If love is, as Fromm suggests, a “lingering quality” waiting to be actualized by an object, then transparency – self-love - is the first instance, and the flowering, of a love that is able to flow outwards and into the community. So we see that Fromm’s notion of self affirmation – that is, acceptance of our individuality “in all our squalor and recalcitrance”40 - is in the end an affirmation of love, a love that can lead outwards towards the other.

To be spontaneous is to see and enjoy the positive aspects of freedom; it is to stay on the path, and to walk onwards with open eyes. “The basic dichotomy that is inherent in freedom – the birth of individuality and the pain of aloneness – is dissolved on a higher plane by man’s spontaneous action.”41 It is, then, freestanding, instead of freefalling. The fear of the child who, upon contact with the expanse of the world – its whirl of experiences and possibilities - rushes to the security of his parents and the various protective illusions of a cosseted existence, is made redundant by a new sense of security – “The new security is dynamic; it is not based on protection, but on man’s spontaneous activity. It is the security acquired each moment by man’s spontaneous activity. It is the security that only freedom can give, that needs no illusions because it has eliminated those conditions that necessitate illusions.”42

Like mindfulness, spontaneity is generally discouraged by our various systems, many of which can be seen to exist as a refuge from negative freedom.


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< D.W. Winnicott: Creative Living
> Eric Berne: Awareness, Spontaneity & Intimacy