Broadly speaking, our histories of aesthetics remain beholden to formalized textual discourses that developed (often in the eighteenth century) around highly institutionalized domains of art. But here . . . I proceed from a conviction about the special significance of dress as something else: a widely distributed aesthetic field populated with objects that continually bend the shape of the world around them rather than arresting that world entirely. The ubiquity, breadth, and material vastness of the scene of dress—together with the unparalleled material intimacy between dress and human bodies—fully compensate for whatever clothes may lack, aesthetically, of formal self-enclosure. Likewise, the promiscuous movement of clothes between home and work, private and public, background silence and vocality, bestows upon them a uniquely foundational aesthetic force. My largest suggestion, then, is that our criticism should better register the distinctness of dress—and thereby draw upon its special capacities to fly somewhat below the radar, elude historical determination, and remain apart from the broader sweep of material life even while circulating in the material world.
This essay elaborates that suggestion by developing a revisionary reading of the philosopher Jacques Rancière’s influential account of the reordering of aesthetics at the end of the long eighteenth century—an account in which the art of dress peculiarly fails to come into visibility.
Vector Semantics, William Empson, and the Study of Ambiguity
The aim of this essay is to introduce humanists to vector semantics, a subfield of computational linguistics that uses statistical measurements to model the meanings of words. Its basic methods were first theorized in the 1940s and 1950s by mathematicians and information theorists, like Warren Weaver and Claude Shannon, as well as by linguists like Zellig Harris and John Firth. For much of the later twentieth century, attention in linguistics turned away from statistical, data-based approaches, focusing instead on studies of syntax and grammar like those of Noam Chomsky. Since the 1990s, however, computational semantics have blossomed into a massive field, in large part because of the commercial demand for Internet search engines and targeted advertising. The basic notion that informs this work is vector representation, which defines a word as a sequence of numbers that record how often it appears near other words. Much like social-network graphs that track relations among people, semantic models expose the many points of connection words share in high-dimensional space. Across these connections, words can be shown to cluster into concepts or topics, but those concepts never form discrete entities; instead, vector-space models place words in a vast, interconnected space of meaning.
In the last years of the twentieth century, a soi-disant "conceptual writing" seemed newly relevant because of the way it read against the contemporaneous emergence of database-driven cultures of surveillance, finance, and communication. Although they were not necessarily published on-line, or exploiting the advantages of computational analysis, or pursuing the affordances of digital tools, such work could be considered as "new- media poetry" because it exhibited the structural logic of the database. . . . To be sure, the reign of the database is still in the ascendant, but the underlying technical structure of the internet—not to mention its cultural semantics—has changed. Accordingly, one way to map the development of conceptual writing over the course of the last two decades would be to attend to how certain works come into dialogue with their changing cultural background—establishing feedback loops of reflexive resonance with non-poetic texts and structures—while others, accordingly, fall out of sync. If the texts of first-phase conceptualism aligned with the early internet in fraught ways, certain recent works exploit both the themes and forms at the heart of the social-media networks that predominate and structure on-line culture today, and they signify with heightened urgency on account of those congruencies.
Undoing Neoliberalism: Homo Œconomicus, Homo Politicus, and the Zōon Politikon
Many theorists and political actors today conceive of the battle of neoliberalism as deathmatch between the figure of homo œconomicus, who transforms everything into the terms of economics, and homo politicus, the figure of democracy as popular sovereignty and the creature who just might save us from the encroaching forces of neoliberalism. This essay challenges such framings of the political stakes of neoliberal capitalism today; its goal is to reconceputalize the phenomena of neoliberalism so as to open up new avenues for politics (including anti-neoliberal politics).
I first read Principles more than forty years ago and eventually wrote about it in an essay published in this journal. The title is “The Classic is the Baroque: On the Principle of Wölfflin’s Art History.” On my reading, Wölfflin is a richer and more dynamic figure than he had been taken for. I see his categories as dynamically hermeneutic rather than statically typological. Classical and baroque are ways of seeing that energize one another, not ways of being that stand apart. The essay remains current—more than any other I have written—among art historians, and a few years ago I was invited to a colloquium to celebrate the centenary of Wölfflin’s Principles. Returning after decades offered an occasion to rethink the book and the author, along with my position relative to it. I am in no sense an art historian; I approached the book without preconception, or at least without any that I am aware of, and as an outsider. The situation of a fresh reader, not indoctrinated into the discipline, must have contributed to my ability to confront the work differently from the norm. It is, in any event, a component of the remarks that follow, which echo and supplement my old essay.
The chief purpose of this article is not to present an account of the contours of Portugal’s May Day events in 2012. Neither is it to articulate the historical circumstances that led to those events, though some context that contributed to the potentialization of a moment will be provided. Rather, the aim here is to interrupt the crisis narrative, to reveal the conservative nature of crisis discourse by introducing what Joseph Masco calls an effective "crisis in crisis." While it is true that the term crisis does important work on the ground, in this essay I emphasize how the fluency of the notion has also made it into a stumbling block, preventing an understanding of what is going on—indeed, of the goings-on of crisis itself. Such an endeavor involves making an analytic distinction between the crisis lexicon and what Lauren Berlant calls an "impasse." An impasse, I suggest, is not a crisis. It is rather what Janet Roitman calls "anti-crisis": the aporias of decision-making rendered explicit. As Roitman explains in her study of the term, the use of crisis as a diagnosis entails a form of judgment. The ultimate purpose of such a judgment is to restore, or indeed maintain, a particular social order. Given how crisis itself has attained a kind of normative force such that it has become part of governmental structures of exception, how might one interrupt this generative idiom if not by highlighting the failure of crisis to figure in—and, therefore, its failure to allow us to figure out—a moment?
In the Presence of Absence: Commemoration and Disavowal in Congo
In many pockets of the world where Rwanda’s story circulates beyond the stewardship of its citizens, the rigor of commemoration has been transposed. It has become the lifeblood of tourism; it has become a currency tied to the US dollar, to the great British pound, and tied, irrevocably, to the absolution of Western guilt; it has become an invocation of genocide tethered to the Holocaust as a shorthand to absolution earned not by the payment of any debt nor by any sustained act of atonement but rather by the willful addiction to African silence.
There are terms for this diagnosis. And heated arguments for and against its validity. The point, in my view, has less to do with who is right or wrong and more to do with what is at stake, with the reverberations that amplify or mute simultaneous truths. For this reason, I do not want to talk about Rwanda. I want to talk about what its officialdom official presence casts into shadow. I want to talk about the mess, about the present, and about disavowal.
Notes on Nonsculpture Sculpture: Figures of Sonic and Mirrored Infinity
When I first saw [Infinite Cube], I was struck not only by its testament to the spirit of collaboration between the two artists but also by its exuberant crystalline presence and the profound work it did as sculpture. Clearly other artists have created infinite expanses through the use of mirrors; one thinks of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room installations right away, and Robert Morris has throughout his career worked with mirrors and cubes and wrestled with the problems of this conjoined phenomenological problem of virtual matter. Infinite Cube takes up similar concerns, but its focus is clearly and decidedly its own. The problem it sets out for itself is contained in something that resembles the beauty of a mathematical proof. An interior cube composed of a grid-based cubic system of a thousand LED lights multiplies infinitely through the use of the two-way mirrors that make up the six sides of the cube, creating an unending expense of light in every direction, an ever-unfolding celestial body contained in a minimalist cube that shines forth from its finitude.
This is how Infinite Cube enacts the possibility of nonsculpture sculpture. One could not attain the infinite without the materials—the glass, electronics, steel, and so forth—yet in some ways the materials are really beside the point. The illuminated infinity is the point. Nevertheless, it is a sculpture through and through.