Sculpture and the Uncanny Valley

Bernini, Rape of Proserpina (detail)
In this era of increasingly accurate 3D computer imagery, animators have come up against a problem known as the “uncanny valley” — after a certain point, the closer to accurate 3D imagery is, the creepier it becomes. The reason that it’s a “valley” is that it’s assumed that once we hit on absolute accuracy, it will no longer be creepy. I believe that assumption is unfounded. If we hit absolute accuracy, we would also hit the level of absolute creepiness. Human culture may never recover.

Humanity was in danger of hitting this uncanny point of horror at once before, during the Renaissance. At that time, painters and sculptors strove for the greatest possible accuracy, and the results are often startling, especially in the case of sculpture. Close-ups of familiar pieces like Michelangelo’s David reveal detail that is almost literally unbelievable.

Now for contemporary viewers, it’s the most natural thing in the world that all those sculptures are unpainted. Yet it’s now known that the reason for this is a historical accident. The Greeks and Romans painted their sculptures, but after many centuries, there was no apparent evidence of this fact. The Renaissance sculptors, in their passion to imitate classical models, thus left their sculptures unpainted.

There’s a certain irony in this fact, but there is also a saving grace — for imagine what would have happened if the Renaissance artists, with their passion for absolute imitation of nature, had actually combined sculpture and painting. A version of Michelangelo’s David that was painted as accurately as it is sculpted would, I submit, be utterly unbearable to look at. It would be too real. Only the abstraction of color allows the accuracy of the sculpture to provoke wonder rather than horror.

My proof for this is Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina, where the absolute accuracy of the form is so extreme that it can, at least for some viewers, overwhelm the abstraction from color and cross deeply into the uncanny valley. Where Pluto’s fingers touch her thigh, we believe we see real flesh, and the effect can either be appreciative disbelief — or revulsion.

Big Other of public opinion, hear our prayer

Protests don’t work. Whatever their efficacy was in past eras, it is spent. We all witnessed the largest coordinated protests in world history in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and the Iraq War not only happened but is still happening, under the watch of a president whose grass-roots support stemmed largely from his uncanny luck in not yet being in the Senate when the vote to authorize the Iraq War took place.

Today, there is a massive, coordinated protest march, complete with a hashtag and corporate sponsors. I don’t see the value of this aside from its role as a ritual observance. I don’t begrudge anyone their liturgy, to be sure. But I keep the Sabbath by staying at home. At least when I sweep my floors and clean the bathroom on Sunday morning, I produce some kind of tangible positive result. To each his own!

If the standard is making a difference on climate change, I’m failing just as much as the protest marchers. The fact that “at least I know it” doesn’t make any difference either way — not only in terms of effectiveness, but also in terms of distinguishing me from the marchers themselves, many of whom probably know that they won’t make a difference. We’re all in on the joke. The protest is incorporated into our public liturgy, our civil religion.

If we get all the right permits and don’t get in the way too much, hopefully the police won’t brutalize us while we exercise our sacred right to protest — though for some, the police brutality is part of the sacramental effect. Line up and get arrested! The strategy of martyrdom worked once, in an entirely different political and media landscape and in coordination with a disciplined political strategy that is absolutely and completely lacking in the present day… so it’ll work again!

If we suffer enough, they’ll relent. Except they never do. We live in a world where there are crowdfunding campaigns to support an incompetent and abusive police officer who murdered a teenager in cold blood. We live in a world where the rhetoric of non-violence has been irrevocably weaponized to delegitimate the oppressed and normalize the callous violence of the powerful. Line up and get arrested!

Is writing this post better than going to the protests? No. Is there something salutary or helpful about holding the correct cynical opinions? No. Am I doing anyone any good by writing this? Well, everyone needs to vent every once in a while. Some keep the Sabbath going to the protest — I keep it, blogging at home.

That the politicians in Washington will put the politics aside and seek the public good, we pray to the big Other. Public opinion, hear our prayer.

That our elected representatives will embrace common-sense solutions to minimize the damage of global warming without hurting economic growth, we pray to the big Other. Public opinion, hear our prayer.

That an informed electorate, replete with marketable skills, will show up at the polls in November and vote the right way, we pray to the big Other. Public opinion, hear our prayer.

That we can somehow figure out a way to keep this shitshow running a little bit longer, we pray to the big Other. Public opinion, hear our prayer.

Let us pray: public opinion, you have blessed us with the means to express ourselves while interacting with our favorite brands. Aid and guide us, your loyal working families, as we seek smart solutions that enhance shareholder value in this, the greatest country on earth. Amen.

Academic productivity-related program activities for the fall

This semester, I fear I may be reaching a kind of saturation point for how much it is possible to do without being in a constant state of anxiety. In addition to my regular teaching and administrative duties at Shimer, I am teaching a graduate seminar at Chicago Theological Seminary and attempting to make progress on my translation. On top of that, I have agreed to do the following:

  • Attend a conference for the Association of Core Text Colleges on secular vs. religious core curricula, as Shimer’s representative (end of this week, paper already written)
  • Give a talk on Zizek and religion at Portland State University (Monday, October 13)
  • Write a chapter on the ransom theory of the atonement for a reference volume
  • Write an essay on religion and politics for a special journal issue
  • Write two reviews on devil-related books
  • Do various editing work toward the previously mentioned co-authored essay collection on Agamben with Colby Dickinson (which I had so hoped to finalize this summer, but alas…)

As an added bonus, I need to at least get a book order ready for a new course entitled “Reading the Qur’an” and for a Shimer core course I’ve never taught before (though the beauty of the Shimer system is that I can basically carry over what was done last time, which is my general policy for teaching those courses for the first time).

All of this is a little more manageable than it might seem, because my Shimer teaching schedule is fairly convenient — I’m done with classes by 1pm MWF — and I’m teaching two sections of a course I did just last year. And of course, some of this stuff can overlap with each other and lead more or less directly into the drafting of my long-awaited devil book. I should be largely “out of the woods” by the end of October, but in the meantime, certain activities (such as blogging) are taking a back seat, though other, more procrastinatory activities (such as Twitter) may suddenly become very prominent, for a short, intense time period.

One thing I’ve dealt with a lot more this past year has been travel, both for conferences and for personal reasons. In grad school, I used to absolutely dread trips, and I think a lot of that had to do with a feeling of vulnerability related to my abject poverty, etc., in addition to a bad track record for travel in my early life (either suffocating family vacations or oppressive church stuff — or sometimes both, as when we went to “camp meeting”!). Now I seem to be approaching more normal levels of stress, which is probably ineliminable for people without the sociopatic detachment of George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air. Yet that character’s approach to travel nonetheless remains a kind of ideal for me, and as I ponder it, I wonder if it’s because he’s actually the ultimate homebody who has made the generic trappings of business travel into a kind of omnipresent home. He’s so good at travel that he effectively never travels.

The camp as “nomos”

In many responses to Agamben’s provocative claim that the concentration camp is the nomos of modernity, I have not seen much attention to the text from which Agamben draws the curious term nomos — namely, Schmitt’s Nomos of the Earth. In that text, Schmitt puts forth the concept of nomos as being fundamentally about the way the earth is divided or portioned out, so that the meaning of nomos as “law” is secondary to this more originary meaning. Just as with all of Schmitt’s other major concepts (the exception, the enemy), the most fundamental division is between the inside (the politically ordered zones, in this case) and the outside (the “free zone” — the sea, in the eras he studies most closely).

As Agamben observes of the sovereign exception, however, this “outside” is actually simultaneously “inside” of the political, and indeed represents its most decisive motive force — in what Schmitt regards as the “classical” era of European politics, what was really decisive in the struggle among European nations was not military confrontations on land, but hegemony over the sea. Similarly, he predicts (accurately, it seems) that the US will gain hegemony over world politics through its hegemony over the newly emerging free zone, the air.

Agamben’s countermove within Schmitt’s scheme is to claim that the concentration camp is the more decisive “free zone,” the true incursion of the outside into the “normal” political order. Admittedly, “the camp as nomos” is a compressed way of expressing this, but it’s fundamentally justified in that the defining feature of any nomos of the earth, of any divisioning or portioning out of regions, is for Schmitt precisely the “free zone” that is inside-outside of the political order.

Thus Agamben is not saying that every state is “secretly” a concentration camp or anything of the sort, but that the free zone in which the earthly powers carry out their struggle is within the strange ontological topology of the camp — as opposed to the recognized political boundaries, for example. The experience of the War on Terror seems to bear this out, insofar as the US prefers to ignore recognized national boundaries but is very attentive to establishing camp-like spaces of extra-legal violence (most notably Guantanamo). We might also observe that the struggle between Israel and the surrounding Arab nations, after a brief episode of “traditional” military confrontations, has primarily taken the form of a struggle over the strange political no-man’s-land that is the Palestinian Occupied Territories (neither “officially” part of Israel, nor a “real” country, they are something like a huge refugee camp that has persisted for generations). More generally, under the contemporary global political dispensation, national boundaries are regarded as sacrosanct and unchangeable, so that military conflict tends to produce populations of refugees that constitute the real site of political struggle between and within nations.

Now I’m not going to say this account is indisputable. There are other candidates for the nomos of modernity — Schmitt’s example of the sky springs to mind still, as does the sweatshop — but Agamben’s diagnosis does seem fairly robust and defensible.

Why I dismiss “evolutionary” explanations out of hand

During a Twitter discussion about the widely-cited study showing that men profess to be most attracted to 20- and 21-year olds well into their fifties while women prefer men approximately their own age throughout their lives, the inevitable happened: someone trotted out the “evolutionary” “fact” that of course men prefer younger women, given that they’re at their reproductive peak. Weirdly, though, my interlocutor’s own stated range for this peak was 14-24, and yet most men I know would find the idea of having sex with a 14-year-old repulsive. He also didn’t have any explanation for why women would prefer men their own age, rather than always prefering the presumably more resource-rich older men at all ages. And never mind the fact that stereotypically rail-thin “hot” physiques for women actively militate against reproduction. No, no — it was evolution that did it! It’s not changeable! We must bravely and grimly accept the cruel biological reality that coincidentally supports an ugly and much-contested aspect of existing power structures.

This exchange led me to declare a universal policy of rejecting out of hand any “evolutionary” explanation for contemporary behavior and social structures. This claim has been much misunderstood, as though I was denying any influence of biology at all. I don’t deny such an influence, but I do deny that we can know where social construction ends and the supposedly “hard-wired” biological impulse begins. We know from every day experience that even the most urgent biological impulses can be put off more or less indefinitely. In the battle between social norms and the need to urinate, for instance, social norms win essentially every time for healthy adults. All the evidence of human history seems to indicate that we evolved to be hugely pliable to social construction.

Obviously I’d be willing to accept an evolutionary explanation for a purely involuntary human response such as the gag reflex or the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. But any feature of human society that is the subject of considerable debate and struggle — that’s on us. And here we can count debates not only over sex and reproduction, but over eating habits. Saying we evolved to eat meat doesn’t answer anything. If we can call that into question and debate it, we’re responsible for deciding, individually and collectively, how to proceed.

The attempt to reduce some actual-existing position within that debate to a sheer biological fact is always a more or less transparent and conscious attempt to shut down that debate or at least tilt it in favor of one particular outcome. As Schmitt says (and I often remind us), the claim to be taking a non-political position is actually a particularly forceful political move.

Questions on online ed

A few questions for those of you more familiar with the landscape in online education:

  1. In your view, is the current state of video conferencing technology adequate to simulate a lively, seminar-style discussion session?
  2. Do you know if any schools have tried to offer such a thing, as either a substitute for or supplement to “traditional” online pedagogical methods?
  3. Do you believe that there would be a significant market for such an approach? (I ask this particularly in light of the fact that the necessarily synchronous nature of such class sessions might cut down on one of the primary appeals of online ed, namely its flexibility.)

Music about art: Fragmentary thoughts on Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the classical pieces that is most familiar to me. Ever since my high school marching band did a show based on it, it has been a constant companion, at least in the version orchestrated by Ravel. More recently, however, I have been spending a lot of time with the original piano version, in part out of simple curiosity, but more directly because I plan to use it in my fine arts course — not only because of its unique status as a piece of music “about” visual art, but also to highlight how orchestration affects our reception of a piece of music.

For those who are familiar with the orchestrated version, it can be difficult to believe that Mussorgsky ever intended it as a solo piano piece to begin with. Leaving aside its unwieldy length, some segments seem to be screaming out for full orchestral treatment — most notably the majestic horns of “The Great Gate of Kiev.” The orchestrated version is so much better known, in fact, that the original can seem like a work of subtraction or abstraction, taking away the variety of a full orchestra. In a way, though, it also adds an element. The dissonances are much harsher and stand out more clearly when they’re not spread across a variety of sections, so that some of the segments (like “The Gnome”) can even sound like precursors to atonality.

The question that has returned to me again and again, though, is why exactly Mussorgsky would have started out with a piano version in the first place. It seems so counterintuitive in so many ways, and it’s not as though he lacked the ability to write for a full orchestra. If we take seriously the notion that this is meant to somehow resonate with the effect of an art exhibition, though, I think it makes more sense. Contemplating art is, after all, a very solitary and cerebral pursuit in most cases — hence why a solo instrument could seem more appropriate. In the piano version, the one aspect that struck me as manifestly more convincing are the recurring “Promenade” interludes, which when performed on the solo piano seem much more evocative of the act of reflection while walking between two canvases.

Further, the very inadequacy of the piano (most striking, perhaps, in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle”), the manifest limits the performer (even a very gifted performer like Evgeny Kissin, whose recording on Spotify I recommend highly) strains against, seem to speak to the difficulties of responding to art, the sense that there’s “something more” that one can’t quite capture. With the full arsenal of the orchestra, it’s almost too easy, and this very perfection betrays the experience that it’s meant to recreate.


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