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almost full circle: the psychological evolution of creative radicalism up through the virtual takeover


Because to believe the gift of ming cloi­sonné belonged to you was ter­ror, because you could not love the world enough to deny your desire // To own it. (1)

Re-emerging on the under­ground music scene after a ten-year hia­tus (from drug and genre of choice) to pur­sue sobri­ety, lead singer X of band Y explained his dis­ap­pear­ance to his fans and counter-culture coun­ter­parts in terms of the fol­low­ing metaphor: to para­phrase: “The ideas and feel­ings that pour into me dur­ing the cre­ation process con­form to the men­tal or spir­i­tual shape my life is in, in the same man­ner that water con­forms to the shape of the receiv­ing bowl or vial. I quit the band because I had to be sure that my life is in the shape I want my music.” This metaphor­i­cal ren­der­ing of the artist is as age-old as it is com­mon­place: still pop­u­lar today, it once per­vaded whole por­tions of art his­tory pre­ced­ing the replace­ment of The Era in art with a plu­ral­ism of forms and an econ­omy of means and ends that defied and con­tin­ues to defy cat­e­go­riza­tion. It is no acci­dent that afore­said periods—romanticism, clas­si­cism, etc.—consistently emerged from cul­tures marked by the­is­tic and in any case religiously-weighted ide­ol­ogy, a sort of Pla­ton­ist sol­i­dar­ity with a touch of mys­ti­cism that holds a torch in one hand and a rain stick in the other, keeps its feet on the ground and its head in the clouds– hell-bent on the either/or of the “real” and the “actual,” “good” and “evil,” “beauty” and “ugli­ness,” “sick­ness” and “health”  (a host of con­cep­tual heav­ens and hells that the Chris­t­ian deems irrec­on­cil­ably oppo­site, and in so doing con­tra­dicts her­self– inso­far as she resides in (dwells in/on) both.) The con­cep­tion of the artist as a ves­sel or con­tainer into which flows a divine (ideal exter­nal) mean­ing or truth is thus just a con­tin­u­a­tion of West­ern dualism’s iden­ti­tary rigid­ity (sick artist vs. healthy artist, tainted art vs. pure art, inter­nal vs. external/artist vs. art)—a con­cep­tion of iden­tity which I’ll how­ever sug­gest is itself imma­nently fluid– rep­re­sent­ing a lim­ina– a thresh­old pre­ced­ing and point­ing toward a tran­si­tion or reform.

While I per­son­ally can’t advo­cate the essen­tially moral claim that one ought to wait to pro­duce art until one is “art-worthy” (note the bib­li­cal under­tones in the “thou shalt not” and gener­i­cally reli­gious allu­sion to the After in the “until”) due to the maxim’s fetishiza­tion of the aes­thetic and idealization/concretization of the struc­ture known as art—I  can nonethe­less sense and sym­pa­thize with a prim­i­tive dialec­tic– a move­ment toward rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with oth­er­ness– emerg­ing for the musi­cian through this metaphor­i­cal ren­der­ing of his rela­tion­ship to his art, his silence, his fans, his addic­tion: a sem­blance of iden­tity relations-in-crisis or civil war—each part ini­tially can­celling out the other until the whole left stand­ing (and “stand­ing” I use loosely) was an addict con­sumed with his addic­tion, an addict with­out oth­er­ness, i.e., at rock bot­tom, an addict through and through. Where before the bat­tle between the other(s)-within was silent, mute, con­cealed from con­scious­ness, and then per­ceived reduc­tively by him as prob­lem­atic when these “inner-others’” real world coun­ter­parts got involved, and con­scious­ness could no longer ignore the roles (and their respec­tive communities/audiences) vying for his total atten­tion and total allegiance—where before, in other words, his think­ing was in no way dialec­ti­cal: he now grasps the crit­i­cally inte­gral nature of at least some of the parts of him­self he’d pre­vi­ously repressed or seg­re­gated: namely: the sen­su­ous (the body, the phys­i­cal addic­tion, mate­ri­al­ity, plea­sure, health) from the con­cep­tual (ideas, ideals, morals, beliefs, val­ues.) What he’s done here is of course not rad­i­cal; he has not dis­es­tab­lished nor rec­on­ciled him­self with his infi­nite oth­er­ness, so much as invert the problem-hierarchy, plac­ing the con­cep­tual above (valu­ing val­ues over) the sensuous—into which cat­e­gory he failed to include his art. Cre­ative expres­sion he’d ele­vated entirely from the sen­su­ous to the level of con­cep­tual, indeed– to the level of moral­ism, reli­gion even– hence why he couldn’t engage in it with­out com­mit­ting blas­phemy, with­out taint­ing it, and why his prodigal’s-son-esque return to art deprives it of its inner-other—the sen­su­ous, in turn dev­as­tat­ing his art. What he has done, in short, is trans­plant the rigid dual­ism inher­ent in his con­cept of self, into his con­cept of art: his rela­tion to which, fun­da­men­tally dual­is­tic, did not get reformed when he recov­ered, or rein­ter­preted through his “artist-as-vessel” maxim/metaphor.

But rad­i­cal or not, this man’s lit­tle thought-picture sug­gests movement—a shift­ing of the tense cere­bral plates before they rup­ture from a pres­sure pro­duced else­where, fur­ther down– or out– or in. In any case: there has been a move­ment (the expand­ing and/or liq­ue­fy­ing and/or liq­ui­dat­ing of some one of his rigid struc­tures– the sen­su­ous, the con­cep­tual, other, self) and it is his detec­tion of this move­ment that fur­nishes the next—just as the move­ment on this sur­face is indi­ca­tor of a fish under water, my detec­tion of this indi­ca­tor com­pelling me to cast my line there. This move­ment in his think­ing was fore­shad­owed, more­over, by the cul­tures and eras of said idealistic/dualistic ide­olo­gies and frame­works, whose grad­ual refor­ma­tive devel­op­ment he more-or-less embod­ies on a micro­cos­mic level: A ten­sion is felt in the class struc­ture. A poor, young hip­pie starts a riot in front of the prison, gets shot. A slightly richer rock star goes in for drugs, comes out with reli­gion. An anorexic (her body: a prison) goes from one abu­sive rela­tion­ship to the next. A long-haired 32 year old cries out to god from the inten­sive care unit at the fed­er­ally funded hos­pi­tal. A for­mer rock star becomes a pas­tor. A for­mer anorexic becomes famous for her mem­oir. The church is still the church. The law office is still the law office. The pub­lish­ing house is— the hos­pi­tal is still full. The pris­ons are still full of young men who look like the Christ. The hip­pie is still hos­pi­tal­ized. The mem­oir is avail­able online. The anorexic is still unavail­able to life. The United Nation still meets in per­son. (And we’re all verg­ing on machine anthro­po­mor­phiza­tion—) Lit­tle move­ments. The vibra­tion before the rup­ture, the breath before the line, before the poem. Before the poem dis­es­tab­lishes you—no, before you open your­self to it, before it opens you.

Nietzsche’s state­ments regard­ing the insep­a­ra­bil­ity of the health and dex­ter­ity of the mind and the body, or in Der­ridean ter­mi­nol­ogy, the mind and the hand, make sim­i­lar if more devel­oped infer­ences as those intu­ited by musi­cian X: if the body tires out or grows com­pla­cent, the mind will join it in grind­ing to a halt; if the flow or stream of thought for a con­scious­ness stag­nates or freezes over, the hand respon­si­ble for the inscrip­tion of the former’s move­ments will instantly fol­low suit. Now, inso­far as post-dualist and dialec­ti­cal frame­works advance, or claim to, this same inte­gral­ity– of thinker-as-body and as-medium for thoughts: of the health and vivac­ity of the pro­ducer and that of the prod­uct: it is no small won­der that more atten­tion isn’t paid within these frame­works to the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal dimen­sions of their sub­jects. If every art­work is a mir­ror of some cul­ture, main­stream of alter­na­tive, local or global—should not the cul­tural the­o­rist and the­o­rist of art be con­cerned with the ques­tion of the state of the mind, the hands, the eyes, that con­ceived said work? She’d be naïve– or sui­ci­dal– it seems, not to.


There is, in spring, a eupho­ria that vines around this city like a pink and per­fect sad­ness: you were its only witness.

The artist— stripped of her pro­duc­tions and our judg­ments there­upon: stands naked before us as a sen­tient, nourishment-requiring body; a brain churn­ing with dreams and desires, hopes and fears; a set of eyes, ears and a nose like the rest of ours, with but height­ened sen­si­tiv­ity to the sights, sounds and smells we all encounter on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. For now, for our pur­poses and for the dig­nity of our artist, we throw this pic­ture of the lat­ter under the light of those prod­ucts we just stripped her of—her con­tri­bu­tions to cul­ture, her art. We ask: how, from this body teem­ing with sen­sa­tions and per­cep­tions and ideas, do the prod­ucts which ren­der her “artist”—flow out?: and are imme­di­ately met with resis­tance by our sub­ject, the Dionysian whose nature it is not to know its own ways, let alone to explic­itly relay such knowl­edge to others.

If the artis­tic genius, in the words of Kant “gives the rule to art” and as such “is a tal­ent for pro­duc­ing that for which no def­i­nite rule can be given, and not an apti­tude in the way of clev­er­ness for what can be learned accord­ing to some rule; and that con­se­quently orig­i­nal­ity must be its pri­mary property”—we must admit that the expli­ca­tion or geneal­ogy of said genius is impos­si­ble pre­cisely because the processes whereby, and minds wherein, it orig­i­nates are first of all legion, and would need to be enu­mer­ated in a sur­vey of each genius who has ever lived, after the fash­ion of the Chris­t­ian “book of sal­va­tion” or the “total descrip­tion” of Leib­niz. Such an index is of course unat­tain­able, but even if all geniuses could be res­ur­rected and cor­ralled into an enor­mous gym­na­sium to account for us their var­ie­gated processes of cre­ation, these accounts would be deeply pri­vate (pre-linguistic), and hence: untranslatable.

Indeed, if there is any­thing all genius works of art have in com­mon, it is arguably the very incom­mu­ni­ca­bil­ity of the “laws” which gov­ern their process. Which is to say: what dis­tin­guishes the genius’s process of cre­ation from, say, my process of decid­ing what to make for break­fast, when or whether to get out of bed, etc.—is pre­cisely the com­plex­ity and ulti­mately the irra­tional­ity with which it man­i­fests. Com­plex and irra­tional: but not unso­phis­ti­cated; cer­tainly not arbi­trary or delu­sional. The “irra­tional­ity” of cre­ative genius might rather be said to have its equal in Foucault’s con­cep­tion of the imag­i­na­tion as not accu­rate nor erring, true nor false:

Imag­i­na­tion is not mad­ness. Even if in the arbi­trari­ness of hal­lu­ci­na­tion, alien­ation finds the first access to its vain lib­erty, mad­ness begins only beyond this point, when the mind binds itself to this arbi­trari­ness and becomes a pris­oner of this appar­ent lib­erty. At the moment he wakes from a dream, a man can indeed observe: “I am imag­in­ing that I am dead”: he thereby denounces and mea­sures the arbi­trari­ness of the imagination—he is not mad. He is mad when he posits as an affir­ma­tion of his death—when he sug­gests as hav­ing some value as truth—the still-neutral con­tent of the image “I am dead.” And just as the con­scious­ness of truth is not car­ried away by the mere pres­ence of the image, but in the act which lim­its, con­fronts, uni­fies, or dis­so­ci­ates the image, so mad­ness will begin only in the act which gives the value of truth to the image.”

The non-referential men­tal images pro­duced in and by the imag­i­na­tion are exempt from the cat­e­gories of truth and false­hood, and the imag­i­na­tion itself– even the wildest of the wild– incom­men­su­rable with the cat­e­gories of san­ity, ratio­nal­ity, health. The drunk man, the man star­tled awake mid-dream, the artist mid-creation or imme­di­ately upon emerg­ing, has not yet given a value to the image at hand—has not deemed it true or false, art­ful or not, mean­ing­ful or non­sen­si­cal: but rather sim­ply pro­duced it, unwit­tingly and with­out a thought as to what it might mean or not mean. Thus, the thoughts and per­cep­tions that occur when the artist or writer approaches her work for the first time ratio­nally, objec­tively, in the after­math of the orig­i­nal event of creation—this “sec­ond glance” can be described as the “wak­ing thoughts” of a dreamer, which thoughts in turn can be described as a whirl­wind at the bor­der between states of consciousness.

Of the tor­nadic expe­ri­ence that is wak­ing: just as the tip of the cone touches down, just as the “crit­i­cal eye” flies open, and begins devour­ing its sur­round­ings in a fated encounter of the tro­pos­phere and ground, the celes­tial and earthly realms, the clouds in which chil­dren “deci­pher” crude images and the explicit weather that obstructs our vision—the now swirling, now illeg­i­ble sequence of sym­bols, reduced to a gen­eral mood to be mea­sured in the prim­i­tive terms of per­spi­ra­tion, heart rate—sweeps over, wreak­ing havoc on the hith­erto uncen­sored sen­sory footage; and just as quickly as the vio­lence manifests—it passes. One takes a breath­less sur­vey of one’s body, the room, the yard, and when reori­ented: returns to the Old World Order. (Or, con­trar­ily, he embarks on the day as if he car­ries in his satchel a top-secret doc­u­ment; an undis­cov­ered cure; a firearm. The dreamer’s prover­bial travel log comes equipped with lock & key—it is writ­ten in a lan­guage which he, alone, can trans­late. Cre­ative geniuses will tend to fix­ate on their dreams—a fact which lends tex­ture to their cre­ations and con­scious expe­ri­ence, and simul­ta­ne­ously lends to the iso­la­tion of that con­scious­ness and expe­ri­ence. Left brained indi­vid­u­als, and those who expend min­i­mal energy on the act of intro­spec­tion, tend to resolve, or aban­don, their dreams with greater ease. This dis­tinc­tion fore­shad­ows the dis­cus­sion of mad­ness and rad­i­cal­ism, mad­ness as the acci­den­tal or not-strictly nec­es­sary con­se­quence of extreme iso­la­tion as expe­ri­enced by the rad­i­cal cre­ator. More on this to come)

Of the tor­nadic expe­ri­ence that is the lim­ina of cre­ation (from the last sec­tion of my Ground­work to the Most Beau­ti­ful Train­wreck in the World): Her [the creator’s] dreams she’ll let expand and bramble-over like a wild ter­rain fear­less of its own unex­plored ves­tiges and cor­ners, ever expand­ing, twin­ing back on itself, expand­ing still, her dreams, the mul­ti­ple orgasms of unfet­tered sex­u­al­ity, the yes, the land­scape before maps and before trains, the land­scape and then­some, illim­itable, her dreams—or That which con­tains the first seed of destruc­tion: her unquench­able, untame­able, unre­lin­quish­able capac­ity to alter, slice open, and vine out of her stone self— ren­der­ing the round world form­less, no—re-formable, yes—reformed. This artist’s dream, her as-yet-unexpressed vivid idea, expands, gyrates, kills off, regen­er­ates, mas­tur­bates, self-mutilates, coag­u­lates, scabs, scars, expands fur­ther, purges, devours, pusses, groans, foams, grows upward, slumps over, grows inward, self-punctures, grows out­ward, expands further—all of which the inner-eye watches, nay, feels, with com­plete atten­tion and fath­om­less won­der: at which bor­der of cog­ni­tive states con­sists the sec­ond seed, the seed of cre­ation, expres­sion, verb-alization. From this momen­tary merg­ing of her Apol­lon­ian and Dionysian/ordering and dishevel­ing coun­ter­parts, rises the genius’s trace like a mirage, a blue­print, like both-and-neither mirage and/nor blue­print, rip­pling majes­tic and timid in turns, depend­ing on the force, the ebb or flow of the will as it moves out­ward to be ful­filled in, of, and by the world.

All of said drama has so far taken place on the side of the sub­ject (the author of the given life-narrative), for whom there is, as it were, a vision here and a world there. And pre­cisely “there” is where the becom­ing iden­tity encoun­ters its great­est resistance—not from the mate­ri­als with which it must actu­al­ize its idea, nor from the other—but from its own fix­a­tion thereon. The self, to bor­row the ter­mi­nol­ogy of Hegel, “desires recog­ni­tion from the other” to val­i­date its inde­pen­dence, its free­dom there from. But the new artist [the radical]….gripped with the greater anx­i­ety, allow it, the greater “evil,” over fail­ing to cre­ate by ceas­ing to cre­ate….under­stands that this endurance para­dox­i­cally demands both recog­ni­tion of its trace by the other, and that it not seek recog­ni­tion for its trace. For the moment the will turns its gaze toward the other, or even back toward the trace—as Orpheus turned back toward Eurydice—it turns away from the object of its cre­ation, which is always simul­ta­ne­ously “here” and “forward”—a path, a trajectory—thus for­feit­ing the momen­tum in which alone the trace is sustained.

Thus the genius orches­trates, half-unconsciously, a sys­tem­atic lay­er­ing of images and symbols—which is not yet a “logic sys­tem” whose state­ments and prod­ucts are ren­dered true or false by a set of rules and laws of which the logi­cian is con­scious. The genius work indeed gives the appear­ance of sys­tem­atic­ity, inso­far as the unity, vari­ety, and ele­gance so char­ac­ter­is­tic of what we call “good art,” when added to the self-referential nature of art­works, cre­ates this impres­sion for the viewer. What results is a state­ment, a pic­ture, a sem­blance of mean­ings or sym­bols which some­how appears—occurs—to the viewer as hav­ing sprung from neces­sity, from some alien logic which holds together when trans­lated through one’s senses, despite one’s inabil­ity to artic­u­late its lan­guage of ori­gin or under­stand its rules. Says Kant: “It [genius] can­not indi­cate sci­en­tif­i­cally how it brings about its prod­uct, but rather gives the rule as nature. Hence, where an author owes a prod­uct to his genius, he does not him­self know how the ideas for it have entered into his head, nor has he it in his power to invent the like at plea­sure, or method­i­cally, and com­mu­ni­cate the same to oth­ers in such pre­cepts as would put them in a posi­tion to pro­duce sim­i­lar prod­ucts. …” What dis­tin­guishes the work of genius (as far as art is con­cerned) from the proof in logic is the absence of uni­ver­sal­iz­able or even artic­u­la­ble laws or rules. There­fore, what needs con­cern us most (what we can con­ceive of at all) is not the nature of the art­works, nor the socially-deemed sta­tus of their creator’s con­di­tion while cre­at­ing them (as “genius,” or as “insane”)—but rather the irre­ducible com­mon denom­i­na­tor of these, which I’ll call their rad­i­cal­ity.


And because you insisted on watch­ing it grow from a dis­tance, you could not taste its sug­ary truth between your lips, nor could you pos­sess it.

Rad­i­cal cre­ators are those who pro­duce from neces­sity, whose rai­son d’etre is cre­ation, and who under­stand this term, cre­ation, to mean a way of dwelling-being as opposed to a hobby, voca­tion, or tal­ent. They live to cre­ate; they cre­ate to live: the chicken is insep­a­ra­ble from the egg, for them– the moti­va­tion is not so much a motive as an avi­a­tion: a pre-existing for­mula for flight, for approach­ing flight, built ambigu­ously in to the body and mind of the bird, of the artist, before birth. I am not talk­ing here about inborn tal­ent, or using “birth” in the usual sense of begin­ning of chrono­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, of time proper. I am talk­ing about the incep­tion of the rad­i­cally rad­i­cal, the flight or fight (fight for flight) impe­tus that must take pos­ses­sion of the indi­vid­ual before artist-hood as such is con­ceiv­able, in the same sense that the embryo must be fun­da­men­tally bird before chicken or egg can be con­ceived of/ conceived.

Rad­i­cal­ity is com­monly con­ceived in the neg­a­tive, as deviance or the nega­tion of accepted struc­tures and norms. And indeed it must be so con­ceived, inso­far as the pos­i­tive man­i­fes­ta­tion of genius—individual cre­ators and their respec­tive creations—cannot be cat­e­go­rized or made to con­form to a def­i­n­i­tion due to their imma­nent orig­i­nal­ity. But to define her in the neg­a­tive is to affirm her rig­or­ously pos­i­tive iden­tity, inso­far as it is this iden­tity that pre­vents the rad­i­cal from con­form­ing to any name or cri­te­ria but her own. More­over, that the rad­i­cal couldn’t be less con­cerned with her iden­tity as a rad­i­cal is an essen­tial fea­ture of her char­ac­ter. If her life or her work dif­fers greatly from that her con­tem­po­raries, it is not this deviance that the rad­i­cal artist is after; if it or he is praised or despised, these facts are but con­tin­gences: the rad­i­cal artist’s moti­va­tion, at its ori­gin, nei­ther antic­i­pates nor desires accep­tance or rejec­tion; its sole antic­i­pa­tion and desire is to give expression/flight to the designs that haunt his uncon­scious, demand­ing an out. These designs, as mutually-determined by the artist’s method or approach, will indeed con­tin­u­ously change and evolve; they are unde­ni­ably sub­ject to influ­ence and as much a prod­uct of envi­ron­ment and influ­ence as the artist herself—to whom none of this occurs, and if it did occur, would not mat­ter. The bird in flight is not con­cerned with why it is in flight.

I am speak­ing here most broadly of the inner dynam­ics of the psy­che of the rad­i­cal artist—a title which can and does assume a plethora of forms. This is because style is not the deter­miner of rad­i­calty, but vice-versa: rad­i­cal­ity is the deter­miner of style, as well as of process or approach. The rad­i­cal artist thus can­not be iden­ti­fied or cat­e­go­rized accord­ing to the for­mal qual­i­ties of his work, and cer­tainly not accord­ing to the peculiarities/eccentricities of his process. The lat­ter cat­e­go­riza­tion is strictly impos­si­ble, for the same rea­son that a truly pri­vate lan­guage, accord­ing to Wittgen­stein, is impos­si­ble. What deter­mines and iden­ti­fies the rad­i­cal artist is pre­cisely aes­thetic fix­a­tion: the dual desire to cre­ate being (or “beauty,” if we do away with the con­ven­tional con­no­ta­tions of the term), and to cre­ate being/beauty as such.

This sec­ond con­di­tion, the desire to cre­ate being/beauty/art as such is com­pa­ra­ble to an obsessive-compulsive ten­dency in that it can­not be explained by or to the artist (save per­haps in neu­ro­sci­en­tific terms), in the same way that the obsessive-compulsive can­not explain or have explained (except, again, in terms of phys­i­cal cau­sa­tion) why she must touch the same spot on the wall thirty times every time she passes by it. The aber­ra­tion of artis­tic genius—profound orig­i­nal­ity, mas­ter­ful expression—is a byprod­uct of the rad­i­cal, i.e. pro­foundly aes­thet­i­cally fix­ated, mind. My usage of “rad­i­cal artist” is some­times con­flated with “artis­tic genius;” I dis­tin­guish between the terms, because the word “genius” car­ries the bag­gage of a his­tor­i­cal usage which makes an implicit value judg­ment on the mind in ques­tion, and by proxy on minds like and unlike it. My belief is that such deter­mi­na­tions, aes­thetic judg­ments that place a value, be it pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, on a mind or a cre­ation are always sub­jec­tive, inter/intra-subjective “at best.” I don’t believe that “genius” in the sense of “cre­ator of brilliant/good/timeless/Beautiful art­works” can be located, much less agreed upon, let alone time­lessly deter­mined. The evi­dence we refer to and rely on to make such a deter­mi­na­tion is pre­cisely the art­works on whose qual­ity we will never all agree. Rad­i­cal­ity on the other hand refers to, relies upon, as its evi­dence an irre­ducible, indeed, an inex­plic­a­ble will to cre­ate being/beauty as such. The radical’s stan­dard is not enforce­able, and is only jus­ti­fi­able to the artist—on account of her inabil­ity to self-justify any other model, and to others—to the extent that they are unwit­tingly moved (intrigued, chal­lenged, silenced) by her work. Rad­i­cal­ity thus implies an inabil­ity on the part of the cre­ator to con­trol or deter­mine her own stan­dard and approach.

I apply this con­cep­tion of the rad­i­cal to the dis­cus­sion of the impact had on the artist by the vir­tual rev­o­lu­tion: a dis­cus­sion I dis­tin­guish from that of virtuality’s influ­ence on the prod­ucts of said. As I stated ear­lier on, this essay is not con­cerned with aes­thet­ics, proper: of exclu­sive per­ti­nence here is the artist: with­out direct con­sid­er­a­tion to his works. We remove him from these super­fi­cial­i­ties, all the while rec­og­niz­ing that they are nonethe­less essen­tial to his being and self-concept—and in so doing, strip his rad­i­cal­ity of all con­ven­tional genius: the adorn­ments whose aes­thetic value cen­turies of aes­thetic the­ory, debates and lan­guage games have still not been able to quan­tify. Nor can these debates touch our sub­ject, the rad­i­cal, for they only fur­ther obscure or ignore its source: the inner (and not so inner) life—the hands and the face and the mind behind the face—behind the work. Cor­re­spond­ingly, we remove from our view the obstruc­tion of social func­tion: the “role” or “job” of the artist as con­ceived by a given social order at a given moment in his­tory: artist as mir­ror, as spokesper­son, as enter­tainer, as prophet—transient func­tions or job descrip­tions which serve no pur­pose except to help the radical’s contemporaries—the acad­emy, main­stream cul­ture, the major­ity, soci­ety in general—to cog­nize, con­tex­tu­al­ize, ratio­nal­ize, this deviant’s exis­tence. More­over, such designations/diagnoses tell us lit­tle about the inner-world or expe­ri­ence of the radical—no more than what they tell us about any­one who dons them as nametags or labels: namely: what soci­etal expec­ta­tion they fail to meet, from which mean or aver­age they devi­ate, accord­ing to some arbi­trary “pro­fes­sional.” We can learn from diag­nos­tic cri­te­ria, exper­i­men­tal research from neu­ro­science and psy­chi­a­try, demo­graph­i­cal sur­veys and so forth– why Plath, a middle-class white woman in her early thir­ties, a divorced mother of two with a sero­tonin imbal­ance, etc. could be con­sid­ered men­tally ill accord­ing to the cur­rent DSM. What we can’t learn from these con­ven­tions is Plath’s subjective/psychosomatically valid rea­sons for cre­at­ing art, or for iso­lat­ing, or for killing her­self. We’ve pointed to the rad­i­cal­ity shared by all geniuses on my def­i­n­i­tion as a start­ing point for under­stand­ing the real phe­nom­e­non that are artists like Plath, whose expe­ri­ence we hope will tell us some­thing about the artist’s (and thus art’s) sit­u­a­tion at this moment in his­tory. We tackle the sub­ject of the artist-as-radical’s psy­chi­cal expe­ri­ence first, so that we can later cast this pic­ture in the light and con­text of present-day Soci­ety: for only then can we under­stand the two in terms of mutual-causation, or grasp how they relate dialec­ti­cally. Hav­ing char­ac­ter­ized the phe­nom­e­non of rad­i­cal­ity, then, we move onto a dis­cus­sion of the impli­ca­tions it has for the psy­che of the artist qua social ani­mal.


Exhaus­tion has noth­ing to do with it— from time to time the rad­i­cal artist rather gets metaphor­i­cally, not drained—drained into the sea where the thought-streams that unceas­ingly feed her cre­ative pro­duc­tions and dis­cov­er­ies at long last con­verge on a point, a lost point—the invis­i­ble van­ish­ing point of a dark hori­zon after sun­down, the night of the unconscious-gone-awash in its own despair­ing vast­ness: the fog obscur­ing the starry sky—the tug and pull of its waves for their own sake obscur­ing the vessel—the body-mind throt­tling for­ward by the sheer power of will: the non-mechanics of the psyche’s now dynamic, now cen­trifu­gal, now uncat­e­go­riz­able (e)motion as incom­men­su­rable with intel­lect and irre­ducible to either prag­matic func­tion or ulte­rior motive (sailing—the way a lost faith sails, limp and bro­ken, but some­where) the hand’s mute and blind poetic guid­ing the thrash-metal poet-think of the blacked-out star-form for­merly known as rea­son (but then the show got ridiculous—the lead singer smash­ing his gui­tar on the amp: cataract of sparks, like red stars) fur­ther and fur­ther out, or, if you’d rather, in—to the dark­ness of the mad­ness of the psyche—the impen­e­tra­ble because infi­nite lens of the inner eye, a pro­gres­sion which might also be described as “fur­ther down,” the plunge of the gaze into its own depths where it has come to expect to find the trea­sure, the idea or line or flow, the plunge of the gaze whose desire for the trea­sure is enough that it is will­ing, in the words of Shake­speare, to “rake for it”—comb the beach and then the water­line and then the floor of the abyss…

…where­upon our fear­less sea­farer looks sud­denly back (or up, or out) whence she came: the solid ground and clear light of day, the order of prag­matic think­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the for­getabil­ity and for­giv­abil­ity of speech (whis­per absence: a cathe­dral appears around your lips) the spo­ken word which cuts like a sword and lit­er­ally in the same breath dis­ap­pears like a specter: a specter-sword or sword of specters—all the unwrit­ten egos who wield lan­guage to their own ends, or indi­rectly to their own through the medium of col­lec­tive good or alle­giance, to pierce and even kill the Other, and in turn to be so killed, at which thresh­old (fatal wound) the word-sword dematerializes—not on the hands, but on the lips (on the lost—the pur­ple lips of the beloved)/killer/subject. Such is the free­dom of ver­bal expres­sion: a bless­ing taken for granted by the writer’s vocal peers. The speaker may wear the dry blood, the battle-stains or scars on her mem­ory; she will for some time recall hav­ing mouthed the word “lover,” whis­pered “betrayer,” screamed “die”—but these like all mem­o­ries are sub­ject to decay, they are the streaks of hunted-animal blood that wash off from the cliff side with the ebb and flow of emo­tion over time; more pre­cisely, they are the cliff itself: eroded and crum­bling, the spo­ken word dissolves—never to be heard from again.

As opposed the voice, the pen wields words that resist dif­fu­sion and refuse to be for­got­ten, but instead desire and demand to be eter­nally repeated and with­held as evi­dence for the thought they re-present. Its word is char­ac­ter­ized by such qual­i­ties as pres­sure, absorbency, self-absorption/infatuation/saturation, the unfor­giv­ing, the scarcely for­get­table, endurance, vio­lence, intru­sion, obtru­sive­ness, the trans­fix­ing, the pre­med­i­tated, the pre­struc­tured, the ana­lyz­able, the aloof. The writ­ten word, and above all, the act of tran­scrib­ing, has an iso­lat­ing effect on both mind and hand, two organs which Der­rida thinks indeed co-condition the pos­si­bil­ity of thought: the hand bus­ied therein by the phys­i­cal cir­cum­lo­cu­tions which represent—are mere sym­bolic extensions—of the men­tal cir­cum­lo­cu­tions simul­ta­ne­ously under­gone by the mind. Mind moves: hand fol­lows: hand moves: mind fol­lows. It is a self-referential, self-determining sys­tem whose resources are there­fore inexhaustible—infinite: even if by this we mean merely repet­i­tive. Com­pul­sion is a form of oppres­sion, a form of vio­lence; the com­pul­sive hand is the hand engaged in—not dualistic—but code­pen­dent behav­ior with a sub­or­di­nat­ing struc­ture. The hands sole power over this struc­ture, the ego/mind, derives from the latter’s own need: the need to sub­or­di­nate. For the ego’s aware­ness of its com­pul­sory need to sub­or­di­nate the hand (the body, the mate­r­ial coun­ter­part, the other) is the source of mind’s con­tin­gency, or depen­dency on the body, the hand, the other.

Those who are espe­cially pos­sessed of the will to intel­lec­tual creation—the rad­i­cal and pro­lific writer of every genre or discipline—have par­tic­u­larly dom­i­nant, and thus sub­ver­sive, and thus codependence-prone intel­lects. Their wrists keep up, get carpal tun­nel. Their hands fall in line. Their hands are bound by invis­i­ble strings attached (and here we say X is only anthro­po­mor­phiz­ing) to another set of hands in the exec­u­tive office of the mind—making of the mind the pup­peteer to the body’s marionette-esque servi­tude. The hands are thus not free—open—at lib­erty to scut­tle off like snow crabs across the ocean floor to play, to mate, to fall asleep. To the extent that they are a sep­a­rate, sep­a­ra­ble entity: they are bar­na­cles, cleav­ing to the ves­sel and lit­er­ally feel­ing its way through dark and end­less after dark and begin­ning­less thought-wave, wave of inspi­ra­tion, rev­e­la­tion, despair (obses­sion. Night sweats. Ter­ror.) …or the hands of the rower: chapped, bro­ken, whip-lashed, salted, scarred—heaving the master-monster ever for­ward on his mythic, so vio­lently mythic, jour­ney. The hands, the bar­na­cle, the slave know noth­ing beyond this motion, the mechan­i­cal ges­tures they per­form to pro­duce and sus­tain it; they remem­ber what hap­pens if they stop or slow down only so far as a beaten dog “remem­bers” not to bark. The hands that can’t stop pro­duc­ing for the life of them. The mind, or imag­i­na­tion, which runs away with itself– and begins to prop­erly believe its own con­struc­tions as truths and as real­ity. Return­ing to Foucault:

Mad­ness is thus beyond imag­i­na­tion, and yet it is pro­foundly rooted in it; for it con­sists merely in allow­ing the image a spon­ta­neous value, total and absolute truth. The act of the rea­son­able man who, rightly or wrongly, judges an image to be true or false, is beyond this image, tran­scends and mea­sures it by what is not itself; the act of the mad­man never over­steps the image pre­sented, but sur­ren­ders to its imme­di­acy, and affirms it only inso­far is it is enveloped by it: ‘Many per­sons, not to say all, suc­cumb to mad­ness only from being too con­cerned about an object.’ Inside the image, con­fis­cated by it, and inca­pable of escap­ing from it, mad­ness is nonethe­less more than imag­i­na­tion, form­ing an act of unde­ter­mined content.”

The iso­lated rad­i­cal who, los­ing touch with all but her inner storm, can­not man­i­fest the being for which all of her activ­ity and inward move­ment is but means, now relates to her work as the mad­man relates to the prod­ucts of his deranged imag­i­na­tion: as a prison, as depri­va­tion, as nega­tion, as void—and no longer tran­scends the rational/irrational dis­tinc­tion through any move­ment Fou­cault would say qual­i­fies as sane. As we recall, the imag­i­na­tion for Fou­cault can­not err so long as the sub­ject does not believe in the real­ity of the image. The rad­i­cal who iso­lates inter­nally to the point at which her inner expe­ri­ence, her unman­i­fested imag­in­ings, become her prime and sole real­ity, is now eli­gi­ble to be cat­e­go­rized as irra­tional, as mad, accord­ing to Fou­cault. Anal­o­gous this judg­ment of the imag­i­na­tion “gone too far” and turned “insane,” De Beauvoir’s charge of “seri­ous­ness” is less harsh, but equally devastating:

“If one denies the sub­jec­tive ten­sion of free­dom one is evi­dently for­bid­ding him­self uni­ver­sally to will free­dom in an indef­i­nite move­ment. By virtue of the fact that he’ refuses to rec­og­nize that he is freely estab­lish­ing the value of the end he sets up, the seri­ous man makes him­self the slave of that end. He for­gets that every goal is at the same time a point of depar­ture and that human free­dom is the ulti­mate, the unique end to which man should des­tine him­self. He accords an absolute mean­ing to the epi­thet use­ful, which, in truth, has no more mean­ing if taken by itself than the words high, low, right, and left. It sim­ply des­ig­nates a rela­tion­ship and requires a com­ple­ment: use­ful for this or that. The com­ple­ment itself must be put into ques­tion, and, as we shall see later on, the whole prob­lem of action is then raised.”

Per­ceiv­ing him­self as enslaved, if not insane: the rad­i­cal responds most often in one of two ways: he thrives on: plung­ing fur­ther and fur­ther away from the coast­line, the objective/rational per­spec­tive or van­tage point—

and cuts off his ear

sticks her head in the oven

throws him­self in fits of hys­te­ria at a horse

Or: she re-adopts the artist-as-vessel con­cep­tion of her iden­tity, view­ing her deviant lifestyle and per­son­al­ity as strictly neg­a­tive, sick, mor­bid, amoral, evil; in short: she awak­ens mid-plunge, sud­denly starkly aware that she is under water, being dragged down, drown­ing. Reason’s adren­a­line kicks in and flings her 180-degrees so that her now-upright body, through the sim­ple pres­sure of the ocean floor under her feet, trans­forms into a water-born bot­tle rocket—throttling at the speed of panic to sur­face from the thought streams which her mem­ory paints as intox­i­cat­ingly rapid but which are in all actu­al­ity dan­ger­ously, life-threateningly, vis­cous in rela­tion to the stream of information/stimuli that char­ac­ter­izes 21st cen­tury cul­ture, the ether-net, the deter­miner of the per­spec­tive of the radical’s almost-every Other.

In this cen­tury, the rad­i­cally inwardly-tuned per­cep­tion shares the phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal van­tage point of a fish caught in the river’s cur­rent, trav­el­ling at its speed, its speed set­ting the cadence, the tempo for the fish who in this moment of its per­sonal fish-history is pass­ing under the first-ever high-powered radio signal—in rela­tion to which, the river, the fish, appear not to be mov­ing at all. This time dif­fer­en­tial thus may in fact work in favor of the Van Gogh’s, Plath’s, and Nietzsche’s of the post-modern world, in that in pro­por­tion with tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments it becomes increas­ingly impos­si­ble to plunge, to one’s death or at all, into one’s own uncon­scious whirlpool. Dis­trac­tion is every­where. Every­where noise. Dis­trac­tion and noise enough to block out the echo of the other(s) within. Hence the “social net­works” of the inter­net serve as much as a safety net for the rad­i­cal, as they do an avenue for com­mu­ni­ca­tion. All one need do is reach out, hit the power but­ton, and wait for one’s com­puter to boot up (think your typ­i­cal abduc­tion motif meets addic­tion inter­ven­tion) and res­cue one from one’s neu­ro­sis or suicide.

But the ques­tion arises as to whether the dis­cus­sion of dan­ger­ous rad­i­cal­ity even per­tains to our age. Indeed, a plunge into the tor­nadic locu­tions of one’s uncon­scious is arguably nec­es­sary to the pro­duc­tion of art­works, or at least art­works whose orig­i­nal­ity achieves afore-cited pro­por­tions: but the tak­ing of said plunge, and main­te­nance of its sub­jec­tive momen­tum, grows increas­ingly dif­fi­cult to the inverse pro­por­tion that it grows dif­fi­cult, now, to main­tain a vir­tu­ally inac­tive social existence.

There are ben­e­fits: the easy access to oth­ers, if vir­tual oth­ers, and all vari­ety of dis­trac­tions that cyber-culture affords, promises instant relief to the iso­lated rad­i­cal. If Van Gogh were of our time, he might have evaded mad­ness by escap­ing into the distraction-factory of social net­work­ing, the cha­t­room, the online forum. There are con­se­quences: if Van Gogh were of our time, his name would be asso­ci­ated with dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent works (qual­i­ta­tively and quan­ti­ta­tively speak­ing) than it is cur­rently; or, if his work retained the sub­lime form for which they’re now known—suggesting he main­tained the momen­tous iso­la­tion its pro­duc­tion required—we wouldn’t rec­og­nize them or his name. For to evade cyber-culture is today to revoke one’s social exis­tence, and so for the artist: to revoke the exis­tence of one’s art. “Van Gogh” qua Van Gogh would be off the radar, Van Gogh qua “Van Gogh” off the charts. Under which ideal cir­cum­stances we’d say that Van Gogh did not “sell out” and on this account could unfor­tu­nately not cash in on the ben­e­fits social expo­sure holds for rad­i­cal­ity and deviance, namely: an imposed aware­ness of one’s extreme alter­ity as a poten­tial hin­drance to one’s social and lit­eral survival.

In other words: the require­ment (present or futur­is­tic) that I inter­act with my vir­tual Other in order to gar­ner a name/venue/audience for my work (a name/job/social net­work for myself) will for most Van Gogh types—radicals whose genius inevitably goes hand in hand with some risky dis­po­si­tional fea­tures: the bent for iso­la­tion, neu­ro­sis, com­pul­siv­ity, groundlessness—this require­ment, where hon­ored, indeed serves as some­what of a sav­ing grace: the artist who hon­ors the law of vir­tu­al­ity in post-modern cul­ture will feel obliged or respon­si­ble to check in peri­od­i­cally, or com­pelled for motives such as recog­ni­tion or career secu­rity, money or fame (thus void­ing his rad­i­cal­ity) and are thereby dealt a dose of the human con­nec­tiv­ity or exter­nal stim­u­la­tion just dis­tract­ing enough to tem­porar­ily sub­due the inner storm, take the edge off. The impli­ca­tions this “sav­ing grace” might have for the qual­ity and/or quan­tity of a given artist’s work I think are obvi­ous enough; we can all at least agree, value judg­ments notwith­stand­ing, that there will be impli­ca­tions. (An aside: all divide-breeching attempts—“selfish” or “unselfish,” to say: regard­less of the motive—which com­pro­mise the integrity of the agent’s inten­tions or will are instances of self-sacrifice.)

The vir­tual phe­nom­e­non is thus in one sense a read­ily avail­able rem­edy for self-induced destruction-by-madness or self-induced social destruction-by-isolation—for rad­i­cals (namely artists) so dis­posed. On the other hand, it is a loaded pis­tol for the entity Art as pre­vi­ously known, whose fate rep­re­sents just one instan­ti­a­tion of a uni­ver­sal death sen­tence for all reflective/psychosomatically charged species of dis­ci­pline as ren­dered inevitable by the new Vir­tual World Order. Of course dif­fer­ent artists, and dif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als gen­er­ally speak­ing, respond dif­fer­ently to the nonethe­less same sources and degrees of influ­ence. There are some who in times of pro­found men­tal dis­tur­bance: inspi­ra­tion, rev­e­la­tion, dis­em­bod­i­ment (or extreme re-embodiment), states con­ducive to cre­ative pro­duc­tion or pro­cess­ing, resist dis­trac­tion and diver­sion with every gen­er­a­tive (and degen­er­a­tive), self-realized and self-destructive, fiber of their being. The true rad­i­cal, as char­ac­ter­ized here, will resist to what­ever extent the absence of dis­trac­tion is nec­es­sary to his radicality’s expression—the cre­ation of being/beauty as he con­ceives of these terms, and the inner momen­tum required to engage in this cre­ation. The ques­tion we must now ask is whether this rad­i­cal, so unfit­ted for exis­tence in society—especially vir­tual society—will sur­vive his own pro­found iso­la­tion. Will he suc­cumb to mad­ness, and an even­tu­ated, self-imposed death? The rad­i­cal, so far as we can pre­dict, would answer: Sac­ri­fices some­times must be made. And so the ques­tion is deferred to an art-starved soci­ety: how do you like your word­smith? Mute—or minced?

1. ital­i­cized quotes from Tessa Rumsey’s “Spe­cial Trans­mis­sions Out­side the Teaching”


  1. asphara wrote:

    Amaz­ing paper: this really is genius. It is really excit­ing read this — and it evokes, actu­ally, pain and plea­sure read­ing it – as life stream­ing out. Thanks so much — will e-mail!

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  2. amanda_wordspinning wrote:

    It evokes, actu­ally, pain and plea­sure read­ing it– as life stream­ing out.” I couldn’t ask for a higher com­pli­ment. Truth. Thanks, Aaron.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

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