Reflection and sensibility

I.

During her last years, artist Joan Eardley (1921-1963) painted seascapes at Catterline, a fishing village on Scotland’s coast. I especially like her The Wave (1961), Seascape (Foam and Sky, 1962), and Summer Sea (1962). What intrigues are the recurring smudges of light and cloud—center or just off center, at or above the horizon. (In other paintings, her glimmers are recognizably moon, sun, blue sky, or sea-spray.)

Four examples give an idea of what I’m talking about (mindful here of the variable quality of digital reproductions):

Summer Sea
A Stormy Sea No. 1
The Wave
Seascape (Foam and Blue Sky)

My eye locks on the rush and scatter of waves, but I’m distracted by those smudges and glimmers above.

I end up thinking about the smudges, where this thinking is itself a distraction—in this case the distraction of leaving the painting too early. I stay awhile. From where I look, the smudges seem luminous and I wonder, what kinds of reflections do they cast on the seascape below, or on me, out of sight?

II.

My hesitation is less indecision than a sensibility, I think. It’s not quite the Coleridgean willing suspension of disbelief or a Keatsian negative capability (“when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reasons”).

This version of sensibility needs to be pushed further than that. It’s more like the matrix of conscious connections that would not have otherwise been made were it not for the distraction and an attentiveness to that distraction. Out-of-sight reflection at its best?

III.

Let’s see if we agree and if we can push the point even further.

Below are links to three brief performances. The clips show performers and music taking place on stages of sort, with instruments of sorts. I wager that you’ve not seen the clips before and that if you have seen something like them, you’ve never imagined them in this sequence.

I’ve chosen them because the individual pieces seem to reflect–and reflect on–one another, e.g,, Kyung Namchul’s fingers moving across the strings parallel the hands and feet of Denis Matvienko and Leonid Sarafanov moving across the floor parallel Lin Yi’s fan and body flicking together.

Please watch each in its entirety. (The last piece is a link you have to click on in order to access the video clip; as in above, I claim no copyright privilege over the below.)

https://www.weibo.com/tv/v/IiuHQcoGs?fid=1034:4444078876612215

While the performers are known in their own right, the sequence serves as one intertext: Sarafanov plucks floor and air, Kyung flicks the strings, Li dances the fan. Each is phosphorescent. Each is inscribed onto the music. Each illuminates the other and each-together reflects back onto me, its out-of-sight viewer.

That sensitivity feels very much like a sensibility to me, while cognitively the resonance is very much like reflection.

Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…

Alexis de Tocqueville is quoted saying it’s easier for the world to believe a simple lie than a complex truth. As with so much else in this same world, that statement is true only as far as it goes; here too we need to push his point further.

What we weren’t told is that for you to know what is a simple lie or not, you must be able first to distinguish complex truths from what they are not. This means you need to know how to spot a complex issue from ones that have been overly complexified, not just simplified.

Both the overly simple and the overly complex are their own kinds of exaggerations, and the duty of care of those who take complexity seriously is not to make already difficult issues of politics and policy more or less complex than they are. This holds for war, inequality, the environment, healthcare, poverty, finance, and the broader issues of politics, society and economics core to this blog.

–The litmus test that an issue is overly complexified or simplified is the surprise that comes with recasting that issue in ways that admit its complexity but in the process stimulate and open up new options for action. If the simple lie can be recast as complex in ways that excite thinking about fresh interventions or if the issue thought to be so complex—“wicked,” in today’s parlance—that no further action is possible can be recast to demonstrate otherwise, then the matter has been pushed and pulled in unexpected ways beyond their respective exaggerations. We know something is the case as far as it goes but needs go further when it is surprise that pushes us further.

–The stakes have are high in all his. I’m at a Washington D.C. science conference listening to a public affairs panel exhort government-sponsored researchers to recast our findings into take-home messages that politicians can digest—and fund further.

It’s up to us, the panelists press, because policymakers and their staffs don’t have time for anything more. “…And whatever you do,” panelists insist, “don’t tell them it’s more complex than they know!”

There it is, I tell myself: the late-stage cretinization that comes with doing policy research for Beltway U.S.A. Later it occurred to me that the panelists were pleading with us not to make things more complex than they already are. Doing so drives Congressmembers and their staff to even worse simplification.

–How do we fulfill our duty of care to decisionmakers in telling them, “complex is about as simple as it gets, and here’s what you can do”?

The answer in this blog has been: If insisting that “complexity” is today’s conversation-stopper—Whatever you do, don’t tell them it’s complex!—we must instead excite far more focus on its close cognates so to fulfill our duty of care to decisionmakers. The cognates I have in mind in this blog are: not-knowing, inexperience, difficulty, distraction, analytic blur, and good-enough. Each, and other optics, are used to recast overcomplexified or oversimplified issues more tractably. (Truth told, many defenders of complexity haven’t done justice to complexity.)

–My aim is to convince the reader of the great merit in insisting: “What we say about many political and policy issues could well be true as far as it goes, but—and yet—we often don’t take that truth far enough. Even when true, what’s been said needs to be pushed further and here is how…” As in: Yes, of course, power interests determine and constrain policy, but that is true only as far as it goes, and in these cases, it must go farther and here’s what we can do once we do push further…”

–It needs underscoring that to stop short at what is “true as far as it goes” is to end in gross exaggeration. When it comes to politics, policy and management, in saying too little or too much we end up saying not enough. We end up tacking on an implied “&c” without filling in the details—and details are what separate the granular wheat from the buzzing chaff. Far too much satisfaction has been taken in separating truth from error, while failing to recognize the cases where spotting and probing both don’t go far enough.

Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion

–Eudora Welty wrote a short story where “bluejays lighted on the rail,” which prompted one reader to write: “Dear Madam, I enjoyed your stories, but bluejays do not sit on railroad tracks.” Welty conceded, on further reflection, that this too had been her own experience. Yet there the bluejays still sit in the Library of America’s definitive edition of Welty’s work. From the other direction, we know through photographs that when Picasso was painting Guernica, he had a powerful image of a clenched fist raised high. That image, however, was painted away under what we see today.

To bring to sight all these present-but-absent bluejays and absent-but-present clenched fists is the challenge of determining what is missing in dominant policy arguments. For what is absent becomes a present for rethinking any fixed picture of things. Clenched fists matter now more than ever, here; rail tracks forever without bluejays is precisely what matters, there.

–To answer “What’s missing?” means seeing any major policy argument, no matter how coherent it reads, as a composite of different phrases and images from different parts of the policy palimpsest for that major issue. Today’s composite argument has been sutured together, asyndetically or paratactically, from the mess that remains once each iteration of policy statement and policy (in)action has overwritten preceding ones.

–In all of this, you cannot assume that the maker and reader of a composite argument know what they are doing. Revealing the underlying pastiche of the seemingly coherent argument and the fact that what has been obscured may well be as important as what has not is a difficult dilemma for which we are all inexperienced and which is a matter open to surprise and opportunity, good and bad.

–So what then do we do? It seems to me there is a next step if we reveal from the get-go the great difficulty, inexperience and not-knowing even in familiar policy matters: We start in the dark and from there ask, What’s to be seen?

“Things shine more brightly to an observer who is in the dark,” Denis Diderot, the French Enlightener, put it in an epigraph. Psychoanalyst, W.R. Bion, offered this metaphor:

Instead of trying to bring a brilliant, intelligent, knowledgeable light to bear on obscure problems, I suggest we bring to bear a diminution of the “light”—a penetrating beam of darkness: a reciprocal of the searchlight. The peculiarity of this penetrating ray is that it could be directed towards the object of our curiosity, and this object would absorb whatever light already existed, leaving the area of examination exhausted of any light it possessed. The darkness would be so absolute that it would achieve a luminous, absolute vacuum. So that, if any object existed, however faint, it would show up very clearly. Thus, a very faint light would become visible in maximum conditions of darkness.

How might this work?

In order to say something new about a major policy issue or see it afresh, I sometimes change the genre within which I think and write about it. The academic article, a short blog, the format of a play, an “I-believe” manifesto–all and more have their own conventions, partial they may be in both meanings of the word.

To take a major “intractable” policy issue that is almost always the subject of policy memos and longer policy briefs, and then focus the dense dark beam of an altogether unfamiliar genre over it, is to see what is left to glimmer there.

If something does glimmer, I think it’s because of the unavoidable ambiguities any major issue brings with it–namely, those elements present in the palimpsest but missing (effaced) in the dominant arguments of the day. Create a vacuum and it gets filled; ambiguity, like any metaphor, calls out to be evaluated. The next step ahead in the dark is open to new (renewed) interpretation.

Principal sources

Bion, W.R. (1990/1973). Brazilian Lectures: 1973, Sao Paulo; 1974, Rio de Janeiro/Sao Paulo. Karnak Books: London

Furbank, P.N. (1992). Diderot: A Critical Biography. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, NY

Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter

The playhouse manuscript, Sir Thomas More, has been called “an immensely complex palimpsest of composition, scribal transcription, rewriting, censorship and further additions that features multiple hands” (Van Es 2019). One of those hands was Shakespeare–and that has contemporary relevance.

The authoritative Arden Shakespeare text (edited by John Jowett 2011) renders a passage from Shakespeare’s Scene 6 as follows (this being Thomas More speaking to a crowd of insurrectionists in opposition to Henry VIII):

What do you, then,

Rising ’gainst him that God Himself installs,

But rise ’gainst God? What do you to your souls

In doing this? O, desperate as you are,

Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands,

That you, like rebels, lift against the peace,

Lift up for peace; and your unreverent knees,

Make them your feet to kneel to be forgiven.

Tell me but this: what rebel captain…

But the last two lines had been edited by another of the play’s writers (“Hand C”), deleting the bolded lines Shakespeare had originally written,

Make them your feet. To kneel to be forgiven

Is safer wars than ever you can make

Whose discipline is riot.

In, in to your obedience. While even your hurly

Cannot proceed but by obedience.

What rebel captain….

What has been effaced away by the deletion is, first, the notion that contrition is itself a kind of war and a safer war, at that.

According to the Arden Shakespeare, “The act of contrition might be described as wars because the former rebels would enlist themselves in the struggle of good and evil, and would fight against their own sin of rebellion.” However, in either case—contrition or rebellion—obedience is required. In fact, nothing was less safe than rebellion whose “discipline is riot”. What has also been effaced, in other words, from Shakespeare’s original passage is a clear accent on contrition and peace over continued upheaval.

But lack of contrition by those involved in the formulation and implementation of highly criticized policies is precisely what we have seen and are seeing today.

No global leader is contrite about their woeful handling of the pandemic (speaking of “Wash…those same hands”). No US president has been contrite about the 2002 Bush Doctrine and its entailed Iraqi War. For to prioritize contrition in these matters would mean refocusing obedience from battle to a very different struggle in securing peace and security, a mission in which our ministries of interior and defence are notably inferior.

Principal sources

Sir Thomas More (2011), ed. John Jowett (Arden Shakespeare, third series. Bloomsbury, London)

Van Es, B. (2019). Troubles of a glorious breath. TLS (March 22)

A different take on The Great Confinement (longer read)

Jim:     …the presentation was an eye-opener, Professor. . .

Prof:    Call me Peter. And thanks for the intro and help in setting up…

Jim:     Sure thing. . . Dick, are you coming. . .

Dick:   I’ll stay behind.

Jim:     Professor…

Peter:  Peter.

Jim:     Peter, ah, this is Dick. . .

Dick:   Jim, I’ll handle my own introductions. Thanks.

Jim:     [Turns to Peter] Maybe catch you the next time you’re in the area. . .

Peter:   Right. [Jim leaves.]

[Dick and Peter are about the same age, though both older than Jim. They look at each other, almost say something, but Peter returns to packing his briefcase. The room quiets and the audience senses things are about to begin.]

Dick:   Well. . .Peter [as if testing the word], you don’t really believe that drivel of a presentation, do you?

Peter:   You came in late, didn’t you. . .Dick?

Dick:   Early enough to catch the guff about rapid population growth exceeding the earth’s carrying capacity. You’re scaring the shit out of …well, almost everyone.

Peter:   It’s pretty obvious that population growth is doing just that.

Dick:   Obvious to everybody but me, you mean.

Peter:   Obvious to everyone. [Closes the briefcase and looks about to leave]

Dick:   You know what I think is going on? The real problem is experts like you generalize too soon too much.

Peter:   “Generalize“?

What, you don’t believe the evidence? You don’t believe greenhouse gases are increasing and climate change disruptions are here to stay and worsen? You don’t believe loss of biodiversity and species extinctions are racing ahead, urban sprawl is metastasizing, waste and pollution out of control?

[More agitated]

. . .That there are just too many people consuming too many things? That global population growth is too fast, that violence and environmental conflict are on the rise everywhere? That what we need more than anything else is to reduce population growth in developing countries and per capita consumption levels in this, our so-called developed world. We went through The Great Confinement and people died all over the place. Did you miss that? You don’t believe the rest? None of it?

Dick:   The Gloomy Scenario. You do it so well:

Quote. Population is bounding forward and without limits; the most rapid growth rates are in the poorest countries; natural resources are exploited and destroyed at ever expanding rates; the gap between rich and poor is wide and widening without stop; technology has fueled overconsumption and environmental degradation; and degradation everywhere continues to accelerate, be it congestion, poor sanitation, or the destruction of ecosystems, fields, forests or fisheries; humans have irreversibly changed conditions for the worse; and, last but certainly not least—right?—disease, conflict, nationalism and worse are burgeoning. Unquote

Peter:   Read my lips: Quality-of-life-is-declining. What do you call the travesty of being confined, all over the world?

But you already know all this. . .

[It’s obvious by this point that there’s much more going on in this exchange, given its intensity.]

Dick:   There it is again: generalizing. For you it’s snap-easy to leap to the global. You guys [Peter looks at him sharply] talk about “global population,” “global CO2,” “global greenhouse gas emissions” “global markets,” and “global pandemics”. Once at the global, it’s the easiest thing for you to homogenize human beings into equalities like per capita statistics and death rates…

Peter:   And your point?

Dick:   If the global has any meaning, it’s exactly the level of analysis where you cannot generalize. The global must–right? by definition?–include all the differences that make up the world and because of that, things have to be too complex to be known with any kind of certainty at such an overarching scale.

Peter:   Repeat: Your answer?

Dick:   If you want answers, start with those really-existing cases where more people mean a better environment, where more people mean less disease, less poverty, less inequality, where more people mean. . .

Peter:   You can’t generalize from a few site-specifics!

Dick:   That is my point: Nor can you generalize either. The global is too full of difference to generalize.

Peter:   So your “answer” is that every time reduced population growth and per capita consumption and globalized disease control are advocated, you find a ready opposite with which to counter? Every example of ours is matched by one of yours?

Dick:   I have no Answers, or at least the big-A ones you lot keep talking about.

My guess is that if you started with all the differences out there before you did anything like abstracting, you’d find many more cases where reduced population growth and per capita consumption and globalized disease control can’t be the solution—and it is precisely these counter examples you and yours don’t talk about.

Peter:   That’s no help, and here too you know that. Start with differences? Which ones?

At this rate, you’ll end up telling us it’s impossible to identify the ones that matter. That way, you don’t need to tell us what will happen if rapid population growth isn’t halted or per capita consumption reduced or what to do to avoid the next Great Confinement. When do we get really worried, as you keep adding to your list of differences? When the earth is suffocating under the weight of 10 billion people? 15 billion? When?

Dick:   There’s no such thing as the earth’s carrying capacity [makes quotation marks in the air with his fingers]. Which one of the hundred so expert estimates are you going to choose as the carrying capacity of the entire earth? And even if you did, there is the techno-managerial elite to regulate to that number?

Worse yet, look what’s happened since the Great Confinement! Supposedly reputable ecologists and experts who wished for an estimate of 7 billion or less now saying, see I told you so, the earth is purging itself of the excess! Just like 19th century veterinarians wishing more rinderpest to reduce Africa’s “overstocking”…

Peter:   We’re million miles apart. What exactly is your point?

Dick:   That things are not what they seem to you. That there are no answers. [Pause]

There’s just. . .right here right now… [at a loss for words, he looks away from Peter]

Peter:   Don’t patronize me. Anyone listening today knows I’m not locked into totalizing answers. What do you want from me? Continually repeating myself…

Dick:   You don’t want to see it, do you?

Peter:   Spare me the condescension. . .

Dick:   No, I mean, Peter, why are you always in a future? Why aren’t you here, with that view [points to the window], in this instant?

Peter:   I am here. I am the one living in the present. We may see the same view, but I’m the only one who wants to ensure it’s there to see. At any time. Your navel-gazing means before we know it it’ll all be gone, not just over, but gone.

Dick:   Who’s “we”, bwana?

Peter:   We—you, me, every—

Dick:   You and me?

Peter:   . . .everyone.  Almost everyone knows we can’t continue using up Nature’s capital. Everywhere cries out for setting limits, for stewarding our resources. . .

Dick:   Stewardship! God, nothing is safe from that gaze. Stop a rocket from leaving earth, and it means you’re stewarding outer space!

There’s nothing you guys say you can’t manage, or at least try to, because there’s nothing that you guys aren’t responsible for stewarding, nothing, anywhere, no matter how far away. “We have no alternative!” you say.

Talk about delusional. Talk about confinement! Just another garden-variety imperialism…

Peter:   Excuse me, but where were you during the Great Confinement? Haven’t you learned by this point? Repeat, we can’t continue on as we have been doing—and if you want to call that imperialism, capitalism, colonialism, bullshit, be my guest! We can’t go on abusing the planet this way. We have to love it and that means setting limits. . .

Dick:   . . .limits on love?

Peter:   [As if he can’t believe what Dick just said]

. . .when everything cries out for setting limits, safe limits, critical thresholds, establishing carrying capacities, accepting the very real risks that have to be balanced against the so-called benefits of new technologies etcetera. Rangelands, forests, wetlands, that sea over there. Every indicator of sustainability and health is a flashing red light, and here you’re BABBLING as if none of this matters in your version of here and now.

Dick:   You see complete disaster where I see unfinished business.

Peter:   Whatever has this to do with saving the planet?

Dick:   Everything. We can’t save it, because there’s no such planet to save at the level you’re talking about.

Peter:   Christ, what a recipe for despair…

Dick:   Not despair. If we can’t find meaning in what remains, are you telling me you and the others’ll do a better job of finding meaning in the future. . .

Peter:   Just postmodern scholasticism.

Dick:   Not really. “Saving the planet” has meaning only because it’s never possible to finish the task.

Peter:   This is getting nowhere. . .

Dick:   Sure this is getting us somewhere. It means it’s up to us to decide which unfinished business we want to give meaning to.

[Pause] Like any relationship.

Peter:  Everything has always had to be personal for you, on your terms. We can’t generalize, you say. We have to stay specific, you say. When all you’re saying is, I like tea. You like coffee. And there’s the end of it.

Dick:   So you’d still like me to believe.

Peter:   [Long pause, as if finally deciding something] OK, Dick.

What are you really trying to say?

Go on, what is all this to-and-fro about?

Dick:   You know. You knew from the minute we started talking, the minute I showed up in this room…

Peter:   I don’t.

Dick:   You do.

Peter:   No.

Dick:   It has to be your way, like always?

Peter:   You have no solutions, no answers, only opinions, personal views.

Dick:   “Only”?

Peter:   [Pause] What’s the upshot, Dick?

Dick:   Hah! “up-shot-dick”.

Peter:   [Avoiding the obvious] What are you trying to say?

Dick:   Oh, Peter.

Peter:   What.Are.You.Saying—-

Dick:  [Says nothing, and then]

So. . .let’s talk about the anger.

Peter:   Will you PUHLEESSE keep to the point!

Dick:   QED: Anger.

Peter:   Anger?

Dick:   . . .and its flip side, hurt.

Peter:   And you’re not angry. No anger behind all this of your “here and now”?

Dick:   So, we’re both angry and not talking about it.

Peter:   What’s left to say?

Dick:   Ok, Peter, ok.

But try to meet me half way this time round.

Peter:   Your stakes and mine in all this aren’t the same. If they ever were.

Dick:   Try to meet me halfway.

Peter:   Which means?

Dick:   [Realizing Peter is not going to budge]. Ok, your way, Peter.

But enough of the ABSTRACTIONS!

Peter:   [The longest pause of both yet.]

Half way? OK.

When I walked in today, I half hoped you’d be in the room. And when I didn’t see you, I thought, What a fool I’d been to think I could try this. I must have been crazy.

[Another long pause]

…and while we’ve been arguing just now, I wondered for a moment, What would we be saying to each other instead?

Dick:   Me?

…I wanted to come up and cup your face in my hands and say, “When do we kiss? Now, later. . .never?”

Peter:  Hah!

Dick:   I won’t give up my fantasies.

Peter:   You’ve always been crazy for happy endings.

Dick:   That’s bad?

Peter:   Where’s the reality?

Dick:   Love protects reality.

Peter:   Even when the reality then was “Good-bye, Peter”?

Dick:   [Smiling for the first time in the play] That was then!

[Pauses] You know, Peter, no one can put his arm around you [Dick puts his arm around Peter’s shoulder, moves closer] and say [taps Peter’s chest], “You know, Professor, you really are right and have been all along!”

You know that.

[They face each other and Dick slides his other arm onto Peter’s shoulder, moving closer]

Peter:   Your addiction to happy endings. . .

Dick:   Happiness? That too is confined to the mess.

Speaking of crazy, [Dick places his forefinger on Peter’s lips] you always said my mouth was your perfect fit. . .

Peter: Hmmm. So, all the rest we’ve talked all about is left to “Until then if not later”?

Dick: Until then if not before.

End

A grammar of policy analysis

Graduate students in public policy analysis and management will have come across an idealized sequence for undertaking individual policy analyses: first we define the problem, then we assemble the evidence, then we analyze it, then we specify and evaluate options, then we select a preferred one and make our recommendation. This idealized sequence, or something like it, is cast in the present tense.

My experience is that practicing analysts prefer their idealized sequence to be markedly not in the present tense:

Having completed the analysis, I wrote the memo to recommend changes.

The past gerund indicates a completed analysis, a hope that stands in sharp contrast to real-world policies that seem to be in persisting incompletion—also a very different kind of “present tense” than the one in policy schools. The practicing analyst’s sequence functions to situate analysis within a context that has existed and continues to do so outside the present tense of “we-do-this-and-then-do-that.” It makes explicit—it insists—that “having done the analysis and written our memos” assumes an ongoing outside authority without which there wouldn’t be analysis.

More, the infinitive, “to recommend,” introduces the promise that our memo will be dealt with, albeit outside our control but within a context of which we analysts are part. Indeed, the point of the past gerund/past tense/infinitive formulation is to make clear that, “objectively speaking”, analysts in the present are not to blame for anything like the real-world incompletion all around us.

The point? The gap between the two idealized sequences looks a lot like the gap between the beliefs we say we hold versus the ways we say we practice those beliefs. In neither case need the professed beliefs or practices be the ones we actually hold and undertake. The idealized grammar of policy analysis is like the sundial that marks the sunny hours outside, while we make and take time very much otherwise the second we leave the garden and enter the vestibule.

Principal source

Moretti, F. (2013). The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature. Verso: London and New York

A colossal inheritance

Under what conditions is it a good thing that one’s beliefs, attitudes and values are not realized as believed, expressed or held? The immediate answer is when those beliefs, attitudes and values are wrong, and this indeed is the charge sheet against the authoritarian personality and totalitarian mind.

The matter is complicated when the opposite of good is good intentions. We probably have just as many cases of good ideas going disastrously wrong as we have of wrong leading to more wrong.[1] Think here of the charge sheet against an utopianism of the perfectibility of humans.

But to believe the latter means explaining how good-in-thought leads to bad-in-practice. In an important sense, it doesn’t matter if you have an utopian or authoritarian mentality. When the world in which action takes place is full of inadvertence (“not resulting from or achieved through deliberate planning”) and contingency (“subject to chance”), it is hardly surprising that difficulty and inexperience come to the fore and work against fulfilling your wishes and dreams.

It’s hard work to implement, operate and manage above and beyond the wants you have. No wonder that the present’s future and the origins of the future’s actual present differ so markedly. Yes, one’s intentions give meaning to one’s actions, but there’s all manner of inadvertent, contingent meanings in the balance.

I am not saying that what happens is in spite of our intentions. Rather, just as war, pandemic and economic precarity create their own contingencies, so too the monumental wreckage of intention—good and bad—creates its own difficulties and inexperience. This mess is constantly unmaking a stable present, or if you want, making a complex one where unrealized wishes and unfulfilled dreams criticize everything that happens instead.

To leave it at that, though, is too negative. The actual challenge remains, in the words of David Alff (2017, 8), one of “demonstrat[ing] how to think with the past’s inadvertent posterity in the moment it tried to build an unknowable here-to-come that we used to viewing [only] through hindsight.” That is: Yes, of course, there is a gap between the past’s future and the present actually realized, but that tells us little about what to do at the rock-face of present difficulty, inexperience and hardship for the here-to-come. (It’s important to recognize just how much a prejudice this “reliance on hindsight” is in a world of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty.)

Which would be a banal observation were it not for its first-order implication: We improvise with what’s at hand, or accept failure as an avant-garde in order to reinvent ourselves later on, or we do both. The latter is always an option.

Principal sources

Alff, D. (2017). The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660 – 1730. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, PA.

Philippe Parreno, artist, on the ontology of the avant-garde in: DADA: One Hundred Years On. The Art Newspaper (accessed online on February 24 2020 at https://www.theartnewspaper.com/feature/dada-100-years-on)


[1] This puts to mind Phillip Roth’s rant from American Pastoral (1997, 35):

You get [people] wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet. . .It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

But “Is that so wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong?” insists the singer, RHODES, in his “What if love”.