Just 'Cause

Allow me to, if I may, present a little statement about the "meaning bubble", and the associated undervaluing of "the real".

Which is, an odd thing for me to be thinking about, considering the fact that I'm trained in philosophy of the semiotic and psychoanalytic persuasion. I'm also a writer. These facts mean that more often than not I'm preoccupied with the "symbolic" aspect of things. Looking at life, objects, words, and systems, and trying to figure out exactly what they "mean".

The search for meaning, either in a greater existential sense or in a more pedestrian, everyday way, is after all a great part of human life. Confronted with great spectacles of reality, whether it be violence, leaking oil wells, or technological lust sweeping a culture, there is a lot of fodder for such quests.

The world has long been split up into two categories as part of this process of trying to figure out what the world means. These categories are the realms of the material, or real world, and the meaningful, or ideal world. The world of things, and the world of words. In other words. These categories help the process by distinguishing between what we are attempting to describe, and the description itself. It's taken for granted that description can never get as close to the real thing as the real thing, because the description is, by definition, not real.

But then, as we get into the technical details of the difference between these categories, we see that they rely upon each other. It would be impossible to come up with the words to describe the real without the real existing, and the real would not exist for us in any sensible, meaningful way if we did not have words to describe it. We've achieved some sort of balance--that is to say, the realm of our ideal minds and symbolic data function in conjunction with the real world of physical material, defining a binary manifold of conscious experience. These two categories unite, giving us "existence", or "being", or "the phenomenal world", or something like that.

And there have also been attempts to find the "kernel point" in this bifurcated system, the point of original categorical separation, as it were. Whether this be a particular symbol, or a particular logical construction that is the basis for all others (Lacan's Symbol or Kant's Transcendental Logic), or the fundamental aspect of reality that is replicated in each physical and mental action (Marx's Fundamental Theses, Freud's Unconscious, Deleuze & Guattari's Desiring Machines), or some super-nominal hyper-real meeting point between the two categories (Merleau-Ponty's Flesh, Heidegger's Dasein), these theories hopefully posit that there could be a simple machine of some sort, a lever and fulcrum, from which we can begin to move the system of our world and how it attempts to mean anything for us, within an example mechanism that is relatively simple to understand.

Or maybe not. Because these various deployments of the categories, the disavowal of the categories entirely, the smashing of the idols and the forging of new categorical gods, and all the rest seems to take place over and again every so often, whenever there are skilled smiths in either material or ideas who are willing to pick up the tools. It is all suggested, and repudiated, proposed, and then debunked. All well and good. Part of the process, you know. Nothing like tearing everything down and rebuilding it, or watching something break and fixing it, to get a better idea of how it works. Or at least as good of an idea as you are going to get. Because it will break again. Or it will build itself again. The only consistency is the attempt to find consistency by watching the phase changes.

I was, at least until recently, pretty consistent in my domain on the ideal side of things. My wordy work on the subject of meaning was/is, ironically enough, based in ideas of most kernel-like aspects of the duality residing somewhere in the material realm. In other words, I was all about finding other words for saying that the material was the basis for our meaning through words. Even words are, in many senses, considered material of their own. I know, right? Well, you can spend a lot of time thinking about things in this way, and it keeps you busy.

But this was before I became a visual artist. I didn't want to be a visual artist. But, as M told me, "you are building an installation in an art space/gallery. You're a visual artist now, whether you like it or not."

Besides the fact of building something real with my hands in a certain place signifying that I was now a visual artist, all of a sudden people were asking me what, what I was building, was supposed to mean. What is it? What is it supposed to be? What did it mean to me, what did it mean to other people, what did it mean to other people other than certain other people, and what should other people tell other people about what it meant? If there was ever an indication that I was, in reality, a visual artist, it was that now I wasn't making something, I was making meaning. Or more directly, I was making something that manufactured the expectation of meaning within other people. They looked at what I was making, and expected meaning. They looked at me, as the person making the object, and expected me to translate the meaning for them, and to answer their questions about it with purposeful answers.

And the ironic meaning of this is easy to appreciate. For a few years now, I've been writing. That is, carefully building strings and codes of ideas into long, winding songs of meaning, that while ostensibly are for entertainment, have subtle hints and insinuations, like all good writing should (in my estimation), at some sort of larger system of meaning for us as thinking, perceiving, intending, conscious beings. Even though when I can convince someone to read some of my writing, they normally say something like, "cool story", or "good description, but the plot didn't really go anywhere". All that meaningful theory work, ignored in its subtlety. But then I grab a glue gun and 5000 cardboard tubes and start building a great big something-or-other, and all of a sudden everyone is looking to you for answers about the metaphysical structure of the universe. Maybe they don't care, or won't understand, or maybe they do. But mostly they just want to hear you say something. Work out some sort of meaning, to justify the material thing you've done. So they can understand what you did, and take a position on it maybe. Disagree, or applaud. Hey, did you guys know I write books too?

Of course we wrote an artists' statement. Hell, if somebody wanted me to WRITE about the sculpture, I'd put together five-thousand words in about 1/100 the time it's taking to do the same to the tubes. I'm not going to pass up the opportunity to paste some words up on a wall next to a physical monstrosity that might lead a few people to actually read something I had a hand in writing. A goal of writing is always to have someone read it, regardless of what the writing intends or what effect it might have. But of course, our statement had to be something that defied comprehension--not out of an attempt to make the meaning more abstract or obscure--but something that trumped the desire for meaning to begin with.

Because the thing we were building was not about meaning. It was about something real, taking up space, forcing people to interact with it, without necessarily knowing what it was. In this way, you might say that the meaning of the structure was for it to be VISUAL ART.

Which apparently, is something rare and revolutionary in this day and age. You ask any artist what their art means these days, and you get a proselytizing speech falling somewhere between confession, lecture, and YouTube response video, a kind of an absurd work of art itself, tripping over the process of being meaningful in the attempt to be oh-so-very meaningful. It's called an "artist statement", for goodness sake. As if by being an artist, you were necessarily making a statement. As if meaning, whether personal, philosophical, esoteric, or political, was the valuing commodity by which we understand art in the open markets of our minds and culture. As if the commodity fetishism of High Culture art sold for high prices necessitated a mirror of "real meaningful value" among the Lesser-but-in-some-ways-more-real-Culture, negotiated in the currency of complicated philosophies, intense, internal spirituality, and popular political causes. These currencies being more valuable than say, for example, craft or process. Or, aesthetics. Whatever that used to mean.

This is why I didn't want to be a visual artist. I didn't want to be part of the system bankrupting the power of the real's unspoken meaning by slapping labels and theses all over it; I don't want to be a member of the invading army of "meaningful" artists, writing their name on the world and telling you how to consider it from now on. Not to say that I think there is anything particularly holy about immediate perception. This is not the Gospel of Thomas here, refuting the god of heaven in favor of a god of the body. I'm not trying to sell you a new idol. I'm just a guy with a lot of cardboard and a glue gun, and I'm putting up tubes here. Just 'cause.

But then again, of course there was stuff I could say. If I wanted to. I've spent over 60 hours so far, and probably will commit another 40 or so, putting up tubes inside a room. I've had plenty of time to think about the tubes, whether I'm thinking about what they mean, or just considering them as things in my hands. I think about where I'm putting them, though it is generally a random process. So there is meaning, somewhere. As much meaning for me as there is for anyone else walking into a room and seeing several thousand cardboard tubes arranged in some sort of crystalline structure. So how can this "real" meaning, that is, the free meaning that develops naturally any time a human considers his or her surroundings, replace the "ideal" meaning that is dictated by artists, critics, or theorists trying to analyze the development of meaning, as meaning? Is one meaning more authentic than the other? If not, then why does it seem like they are constantly vying with each other for domination of the meaning rubric? Why are we so worried about the hows of interpretation, if there are always several ways of creating or interpreting meaning? Or is the "how" the realm of meaning deeply tied into any process of discovering meaning from our environment? By the very act of perception are we also analyzing the methods by which we perceive?

And now I'm back at the beginning, which is analyzing the history of the exegesis of heuristic methods, and delving into the abyssal asymptotes of semiotic theory. Which, for me anyway, is probably the best place. Because I could go on about this for pages, and spin around in circles until everyone but me is dizzy, or until everyone but me is clearheaded. Depending on how you look at it.

But, I can tell you this, and you can perceive it to be a conclusion, if you like. When I do visual art, I'm making something with my hands, and I'm sure as shit not building it out of words. When I'm messing with words, you'll know it, even if you skip out after two paragraphs and go back to looking at the tubes. Call it whatever you want. Hope it's entertaining for you.

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