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Betwixt Worlds

Sunday, 23. October 2011 | 23:00 (tz: Europe/Amsterdam)

Which is ultimately the more felicitous title: Jules Verne's classic Around the World in Eighty Days? Or Julio Cortázar's cross-purposed variant, Around the Day in Eighty Worlds? The former heralds an awe-inspiring feat in the era of colonial expansion, while the latter seeks to capture the dizzying heterogeneity of our own collaged temporalities -- wheeling motionless through time at eighty-worlds-a-day. One world or many? That is an essentially political question, having less to do with what is meant by "worlds" than with what is meant by the political and how its implicit norms are to be questioned. "And what world is that there? What people dwell in it?" asked Fontenelle, in his 1686 Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, unexpectedly echoed in Alain Badiou's summing up of his research seminar this year: "I want focus on the following question: what does it mean to change worlds? An age-old project to be sure, but one which has lapsed into disrepute. Today people seem more concerned with surviving in the world than with changing it." Since these are issues that n.e.w.s. continues to grapple with, the renewed interest in multiple-world theory -- as evidenced by a number of recent publications -- has spurred us to take a closer look.

It is commonsensical enough to maintain that we all live in one and the same world. Conversely, it would seem to require some theoretical framing to hold and uphold the opposing point of view – that we live in a number of saliently different worlds. For it requires constantly foregrounding that worlds are not natural features of the universe – like solar systems or something – but are constructs of collective human consciousness; as they are made, they can be remade, replicated, modified, superseded -- and indeed they are all the time. But still, we say, the world is given; its self-evidence so all pervasive that it changing it seems unimaginable -- let's change the society, even just the neighbourhood, or how about the universe itself while we're in full-on dream mode? But not "the" world -- a question of scale apparently.

Common parlance is ambivalent on the issue: the singular seems straightforward (as when we ask “why in the world?”) but the plural is not uncommon (“worlds apart") and it isn't always necessary to tag the "s" on the end to imply a kind of differentiated polyworldism (as in, “the Arab world” or, in more hierarchical form, the “third world”). Yet this only goes so far, for when one refers to “the artworld” it is in distinction to non-art worlds, not to some constellation of other, competing artworlds. This is crucial because it points up one of the mainstays of contemporary liberal ideology, which in the name of global domination is determined to impose the idea that we live, one and all, in the same world – and through the homogeneity of market forces, is dead-set on imposing a one-world ontology. When possible, pluralists are dismissed as benevolent dreamers – like the superego of the one “real” world, telling us how it ought to be, or used to be, but isn't now – until they start to find ways to have their dreams made real, in which case they are scorned as cranks or worse.

One might of course argue that contemporary ideology thrives on the slipperiness of the notion of worlds – at one moment justifying global plunder by sternly insisting that we're all in the same world, while the next showing remarkable openness for pluralism as we are all encouraged to become prosumers, which requires the individualizing of experience and thus the apparent proliferation of worlds. "Everyone is a world," as a recent high-intensity ad campaign for cell phones in Buenos Aires asserted, even as that aggregate of worlds-unto-themselves, in their role not as consumers but as workers, were being coerced into pay cuts in order to bring their cost of labour into line with "worldwide" imperatives. But this apparent ambivalence is an illusion. For one thing, because what appears to be a pluralizing of worlds is in fact nothing more than accommodating and defusing difference within a single overarching world frame, paying nothing more than lip service to harmless, because defanged, possible alternatives to the brutally real world. And perhaps still more importantly, because worlds are not private initiatives any more than languages are; like languages, worlds are collective, intersubjective undertakings, and though they are constructs, they are not the product of any individual consciousness or subjectivity – and this is precisely what gives them their ontological consistency, resilience, and paradoxical elusiveness.

In an essay on the meaning of the sequence of riots of the past year, whose provocative title -- “Shoplifters of the World Unite” –- inadvertently reminds us that polyworldism is not inherent to Marxism, Slavoj Zizek writes:

“Alain Badiou has argued that we live in a social space which is increasingly experienced as ‘worldless’: in such a space, the only form protest can take is meaningless violence. Perhaps this is one of the main dangers of capitalism: although by virtue of being global it encompasses the whole world, it sustains a ‘worldless’ ideological constellation in which people are deprived of their ways of locating meaning. The fundamental lesson of globalisation is that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilisations, from Christian to Hindu or Buddhist, from West to East: there is no global ‘capitalist worldview’, no ‘capitalist civilisation’ proper. The global dimension of capitalism represents truth without meaning.”

Though, understandably, his comments drew considerable flack – particularly, but not exclusively, in the “Arab world” – it must be said that Zizek does capture something of the exceptional ontological status of capitalism, whose dynamics undermine every stable frame of critique. As a world system, capitalism thrives on its own irregularities, subsuming even the most erratic forms of excess into the fold. Though a totalizing normality would stifle the market, this is not to say that there is no capitalist world. And indeed what Badiou actually argues in his monumental Logics of Worlds is not so much that our time is devoid of world, but that the hegemonic capitalist world is, as he puts it, “atonic.” That is, it is literally “pointless,” offering no standpoint from which a subject can be both the principle of its transformation and at the same time remain sufficiently immobile to assert its reality and destination. “Atonic worlds are simply worlds which are so ramified and nuanced – or so quiescent and homogeneous – that no instance of the Two, and consequently no figure of decision, is capable of evaluating them.” But “worldlessness” is a sloppy translation of “atonic,” for capitalism continues to function as a coherent world-altering force – instantiating itself as a world like no other before it. Referring to the well-known passage from The Communist Manifesto about the “de-territorializing” force of capitalism which dissolves all fixed social forms, Badiou notes Marx’s strangely enthusiastic tone for the world-unmaking power of Capital:

“The fact that Capital revealed itself to be the material power capable of disencumbering us of the "superego" figures of the One and the sacred bonds that accompany it effectively represents its positively progressive character, and it is something that continues to unfold to the present day. Having said that, the generalized atomism, the recurrent individualism and, finally, the abasement of thought into mere practices of administration, of the government of things or of technical manipulation, could never satisfy me as a philosopher.”

Nor should it begin to satisfy any worldly being.

When substance dissolves into function

Of course, one might say all of this is a moot point – what possible difference does it make if there is one big all-inclusive world or a bunch of smaller more singularized worlds? This point was nicely made by pragmatist philosopher William James in his book A Pluralistic Universe, where he notes that the issue between monism and pluralism tends to evaporate under scrutiny. James' student, Nelson Goodman, puts it this way in his Ways of Worldmaking:

“If there is but one world, it embraces a multiplicity of contrasting aspects; if there are many worlds, the collection of them all is one. The one world may be taken as many, or the many worlds taken as one; whether one or many depends on the way of taking.”

Why, then, do both James and Goodman (like Ernst Cassirer) so insist on the multiplicity of worlds – and why might we wish to follow suit? The answer is twofold, though we must be clear that we are not talking about merely “possible” alternative worlds -- that tend to subordinate themselves right off the bat to the single, so-called “real” world -- but of multiple actual worlds. First, because it is a fact that many different world-versions of independent interest and importance exist, without any requirement or presumption of reducibility to a single base. Goodman eloquently sums up his outlook in this passage:

“Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking. (...) With false hope of a firm foundation gone, with the world displaced by worlds, there are but versions, with substance dissolved into function, and with the give acknowledged as taken, we face the questions how worlds are made, tested, and known.”

In another passage, focusing more on the nuts-and-bolts pragmatics of the operation rather than its ontological consequences, Goodman describes worldmaking as a kind of taking apart and putting together. On the one hand, of dividing wholes into parts and partitioning kinds into sub-species, analysing complexes into component features, drawing distinctions; on the other hand, of comprising wholes and kinds out of parts and members and subclasses, combing features into complexes, and making connections. Such composition or decomposition is normally effected or assisted or consolidated by the application of labels: names, predicates, gestures, pictures...”

In the history of ideas, it would seem that the one-world / polyworld debate intensifies every so often when a certain worldly consensus becomes saturated and begins to burst – rather as if one-worldism were the fallback position whereas its ultimate fragmentation is the historical exception which emerges in moments of instability and crisis, before a new world picture emerges, garners support and is embodied by the conceptual institutions of a worldview. To take a quick example, modern usage of the word “aesthetics” was coined by 18th-century German philosopher Baumgarten, who defined it in the first sentence of his book Aesthetica as “the science of... sensual cognition” (and only secondarily of art per se) and went on to found that science on a boundless constellation of what he calls “alterocosmoi” (for some reason, he wrote his treatise in Latin, but the title translates easily, unlike the rest of the book, as “other worlds”).

More recently (2010), there has been some interest in post-materialist thought that grapples with the question of how to avoid denial about the “there-ness” of “the” actual world while challenging its propensity to shut down other ways of actualizing worlds. In Robert C. Koons & George Bealer's The Waning of Materialism, Terry Horgan has this to say in his essay, “Materialism, Minimal Emergentism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness”: “In seeking a satisfactory formulation of materialism, it helps to employ the notion of a possible world. Possible worlds are plausibly construed not literally as universes other than the single real universe (i.e., not as cosmoi), but rather as total ways the cosmos might be — i.e., maximal properties instantiable by the single real world (the single cosmos). On this usage, the item designated as the actual world — considered as one among the various possible worlds — is not itself the cosmos either, but rather is the total cosmos-instantiable property that is actually instantiated by the cosmos. But it will be convenient in practice to speak as though the actual world is the cosmos and as though other possible worlds are other such cosmoi — a harmless enough manner of speaking, as long as one bears in mind that it is not intended literally.” That last line deals a gently devastating blow to one-world theory in general and to its proponents in the artworld in particular.

Bearing in mind that aesthetics itself was intially premised on poly-worldism may be of succour as we try to challenge the supremacy of “the” increasingly atonic artworld and quit the cognitive quagmires where art-critical discourse lies in suspended animation, politely arguing with itself as to whether art can truly change “the” world.

Words between worlds

The Zagreb-based curatorial collective WHW recently put together an exhibition, for which an earlier version of this text was commissioned, entitled "Second World." Among the many things those words might evoke, they undeniably pry open a space between worlds – between the dubious ontological glamour of the “first” world and the next in line. As a verbal readymade, "Second World" reminds us of a world-that-was, while at face value it names a proposition of a world. For those with the historical background to hear it, the readymade meaning comes first. But even as it calls to mind a now-defunct world of social relations, it also names – or rather proclaims – another world. Yet it does so without expressing any futile imperative. It’s a humble enough formula, expressively and creatively idle like any readymade, but intriguing enough to dislodge something implicit, its semantic content quite undeniably holding the proposition of another world before us.

Thus in its own modest way, it is quite in keeping with the most forward-looking contemporary practice in art, which rather than seeking to represent a world, or condense it into an image or depict it on the scale of an artwork, operates on the 1:1 scale – actually being a full-scale instance of whatever it is (a restaurant, journal, online archive, painting business, school, demonstration, housing development, you name it) and simultaneously a proposition of whatever it is. Not an arty version of whatever it is, but the real McCoy. Of course, this is true to varying degrees in different cases, many oscillating to and fro between the established artworld and the emergent world which they propose. Nonetheless, we can safely say that to a very real extent Iain Baxter&’s Eye Scream restaurant, the journal Third Text, aaaaaarg, That’s Painting, lecollege ou The Public School, Jochen Gerz’s Two, Three Streets project – and countless others – are both what they are, and propositions of what they are. They have a double ontology. They are of two worlds.

Such practices – which, though still marginal, are growing in power – depart radically from anything art history has known. Unlike 20th-century practices, they are not a movement. They tear art from itself, take it elsewhere, deploy it as a self-understanding rather than a form. Perhaps most radically of all, they forego the specific visibility provided by mainstream framing devices: while not invisible, they are not seen as art. In this respect, though, they are clearly in the lineage of historical conceptualisms – and give renewed political corrosiveness to those initiatives.

Many worlds if any

They emerge at a time when we are both assailed by a growing sense of worldlessness and the rumblings of other worlds, reminding us that there must be many worlds if any. Perhaps it is because we are historically “be-tween” worlds that we can both understand the implicit assumption that we all live in one and the same world, and the more counterintuitive assertion that worlds are constructs rather than natural features of being. Of course, the signal advantage of one-world theory (and the tremendous advantage that capitalism has over any alternative system of social relations) is that it requires no theoretical justification: it is self-evident, it operates impersonally, “behind our backs” (and really only needs to be enforced by the judicial apparatus of States, augmented when necessary by their war machines). Alternative worlds don't have that advantage – they have to be organized and laid out with a fully conscious strategic intelligence (something which has proven noticeably difficult to do). The point, I guess, is that a world is a collectively embodied, ontological construct, which though depersonalized provides a standpoint for self-understanding, enabling it to be at the same time a proposition of a world.

That is a tad abstract, but it allows us see how art's potential comes into play, in light of its own singular ontological fate since Duchamp (above all by what he called the reciprocal readymade, which deframes art instead of framing non-art). For it just may be that the “double ontologies” of contemporary post-mimetic art-related practice are rather similar to what the current world-shifting situation calls for – being both what they are and a proposition of what they are, that is, a way of worldsplitting and world-doubling.

Once art has shed its external forms, its inherited techniques, its specialized materials, what does it have to offer to the other worldmakers that it teams up with? Since it no longer has anything inherently of  its own to bring to the table, it can only contribute a kind of double consciousness, an estranging awareness that it both is what it is, and a proposition of what it is. That sounds and certainly looks like precious little. But by ramping up the act’s ontology to the second power, it makes worlds of difference.

Stephen Wright