Wednesday, November 30, 2005

My demands, my angels

Peter Campbell on Samuel Palmer:
Palmer and his friends, meeting together in Shoreham, called themselves the Ancients. Like the Pre-Raphaelites who came afterwards and the German Nazarenes in Rome who had gone before, they were a brotherhood of artists – the first of the kind in England – who wished to renew art from medieval sources. The Ancients didn’t live communally, as the Nazarenes had done, and, unlike the Pre-Raphaelites, who were supported by Ruskin, had no critical backer. ... Not all the Ancients were painters or engravers; it seems that they were as much a society of like-minded aesthetes as a school with a single visual aesthetic. There was no manifesto. In what is recorded of them, mainly in memoirs written years later – stories of night-time walks in the countryside round Shoreham and recitations from Macbeth and The Mysteries of Udolpho – the impression is of a group getting high on ideas rather than serious art workers. William Vaughan notes ... that Palmer’s son ‘darkly remarked of certain early notebooks by his father’ – he later destroyed them – that ‘they showed “a mental condition which, in many respects is uninviting. It is a condition full of danger, neither sufficiently masculine nor sufficiently reticent.”’
In another country, in another century:
The "Hamburg Theses" are assuredly the most mysterious of all the documents produced by the Situationist International. Many such documents had a wide circulation; others were often reserved for a discreet audience.

The "Hamburg Theses" were referred to several times in situationist publications, but without a single quotation from them ever being given ... They were in fact the conclusions (kept secret by agreement) of a theoretical and strategic discussion bearing on the whole of the activity of the SI. This discussion took place over two or three days early in September 1961, in a randomly-chosen series of bars in Hamburg, beween G. Debord, A. Kotanyi and R. Vaneigem, who were then returning from the fifth Conference of the SI, held at Göteborg from the 28th to the 30th of August. Alexander Trocchi, not present in person at Hamburg, would later contribute to these "Theses". Quite deliberately, with a view to preventing anything which might have given rise to external remarks or analysis from circulating outside the SI, nothing was ever put on paper regarding this discussion or its conclusions. It was agreed that the most simple summary of these conclusions, rich and complex as they were, could be delivered in a single sentence: The SI must now realise philosophy. Even this sentence was not written down. The conclusion was so well hidden that it has remained secret up to now [1989].

The "Hamburg Theses" had a considerable significance in at least two respects. Firstly, because they mark the main turning point in the entire history of the SI. But equally as a form of experimental practice: from this point of view, they were a striking innovation in the history of artistic avant-gardes, who until then had all given the impression of being only too eager to explain themselves.

The conclusion stated evoked a famous formulation by Marx in 1844 (in his Contribution to a critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right). It meant that, from that moment, we must no longer accord the least importance to the ideas of any of the revolutionary groups which still survived, heirs as they were of the old movement for social emancipation which had been crushed in the first half of the century; and that we could therefore count on nobody but the SI itself to begin another era of challenge to power, recommencing from all the starting points of the movement which had been constituted in the 1840s. ... the "Hamburg Theses" marked the end of the SI's first period - the search for a genuinely new artistic terrain (1957-61); they also fixed the point of departure of the operation which led to the movement of May 1968, and what came after.
A condition full of danger, perhaps. A group getting high on ideas rather than serious art workers, definitely - but what a group, and what ideas.

Guy Debord, 28/12/1931-30/11/1994

Bernard, Bernard, disait-il, cette verte jeunesse ne durera pas toujours

PS The birthday game (introduced to me by Chris Dillow), takes me to page 200 of the 1997 Internationale Situationniste anthology (from which the passage translated above was taken), and thence straight back to Debord (the only other possibilities are Joergen Nash, Attila Kotanyi and Helmut Sturm). I can't find any personal connection with anyone who was born on Debord's birthday, but I can say that John von Neumann and Linus Torvalds have both had considerable influence on my life. Not as much as Debord, though.

PPSThat Bossuet quote was one of Debord's favourites, but it's a bit sentimental - it's not the outlook of a true revolutionary. Let's face it:
Les avant-gardes n'ont qu'un temps; et ce qui peut leur arriver de plus heureux, c'est, au plein sens du terme, d'avoir fait leur temps. Après elles, s'engagent des opérations sur un plus vaste theatre. On n'en a que trop vu, de ces troupes d'élite qui, après avoir accompli quelque vaillant exploit, sont encore là pour défiler avec leurs décorations, et puis se retournent contre la cause qu'elles avaient défendue. Il n'y a rien à craindre de semblable de celles dont l'attaque a été menée jusqu'au terme de la dissolution. Je me demande ce que certains avaient espéré de mieux? Le particulier s'use en combattant. Un projet historique ne peut certainement pas prétendre conserver une éternelle jeunesse à l'abri des coups.
Guy Debord, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Because he's a big bloke

[Sorry about the hiatus - life called.]

John Stevens:
I genuinely never thought I'd say this, but I am now convinced that the monster who executed this young woman in cold blood should, in turn, be killed as punishment for his crime.

Logically, I don't have a problem with the concept of vendetta. I'm a peaceable type - I've never really been in a fight, let alone beaten anyone up - but if you were to kill one of mine, I would assuredly want to kill you or one of yours. Which would of course put me in exactly the same position as you - and so it would go on until there was nobody left, basically. The open-endedness of the vendetta is its major design flaw. In practice there is no equivalence between your loss of a son and my loss of a brother: each of them was a unique and irreplaceable person, and both deaths cry out for redress. Consequently each of us has a good and pressing reason for breaking the taboo on unregulated violence within our community - just this once, you understand... Vendetta corrodes community.

There are two basic approaches to managing the vendetta. At one extreme, it can be managed by the imposition of a superior authority - backed by the threat of superior force - on both parties: think of Mob feuds being halted by the intervention of a capo, perhaps with one final, sanctioned hit to balance the books. At the other, it can be replaced from below, by collective conflict-resolution processes which end in the imposition of penalties sanctioned by the community as a whole. The oldest Greek tragedy, the Oresteia, celebrates and re-enacts precisely this recognition of the corrosiveness of vendetta, and its replacement by sanctions imposed by a deliberative community.

These are two extremes; actually existing criminal justice systems have elements of both. The fundamental argument against the death penalty is that - as John Stevens unwittingly reveals - it moves us further from vendetta-replaced-from-below and closer to vendetta-managed-from-above:

the monster who executed this young woman in cold blood should, in turn, be killed

Should, in turn, be executed in cold blood by a monster. But our monster.

"For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH or STATE" - 'by art', which is to say, by collective human will and intelligence and imagination. It's a burden, and it's a responsibility.