Thursday, November 24, 2016

(12) Maija, -............0+

Tristan Tzara left us with a checklist for dada poems:

  To make a Dadaist poem:
  • Take a newspaper.
  • Take a pair of scissors.
  • Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
  • Cut out the article.
  • Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
  • Shake it gently.
  • Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
  • Copy conscientiously.
  • The poem will be like you.
  • And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
Most of us like dada nonsense, but what if you'd know that some of that nonsense was written by other mammals?

Maija, a Helsinki-based cat, just published her own poetry book. Like many geniuses and fragile art personalities she is not a good producer. The book was edited by one of her human beings, Tero Juuti.

Maija's poetry reminds me about the work of Cia Rinne, who is famous for her linguistic cocktails. It is just that Maija's work is unintentional.

   u7666 bopå lö

Written by a Swede, the aforementioned poem could have been hinting on graphics (tgraph) and living on an island (bopå lö comes close to bo på en ö). The number, 7666, starts looking like a postal code. As a product of Maija's paws the poem of course just addresses the reader's will to 'make sense'.

I believe the (human) intention of publishing this comes just from the sheer amazement of facing cat writing. Cats do famously once in a while sit down on the computer and 'write'.

This connects us allegorically to other mammals. My dog seems to read very carefully the piss and the poop she finds outside of our house. These texts are impossible for us to read, but for me -............0+  is an attempt to overcome this bridge. Wonder if animals see our piss and poop as nonsense?

Maybe the ocean is a huge organic poetry book for the whale?

Artistically I like the era I live in. People publish a lot of small books without the stiffening hand of the professional editors and the publishing companies. Literature feels light and playful again. I am so happy about the crisis of the publishers, the way the internet has become a platform for literary work and the way even physical publishing has become accesible for nearly everyone.

Interested in the book? Try mailing

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


My first encounter with the Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta was in the mid-1990s, during my BA studies. I did a course on Indian literature and aesthetics in Helsinki University. That's when I found Abhinavagupta’s classic commentary of Bharata Muni's Natyashastra (5th Century). I became inspired by his theory of the ‘rasas’.

In a way rasas could be called atmospheres, but practically speaking they are dynamic experiences shared by the artist and those who receive his/her work. In Abhinavagupta's thinking this is based upon traces of experiences. Theatre leans on representational and emotional traces, the first ones being e.g. visual images and the latter being the inner emotional traces which make it possible to get back to an already experienced feeling later on (e.g. if stimulated well in the arts).

I wrote my course essay about this theory. There was a lot I did not understand at that point. There still is, of course, but this is the case with all classics. Practically getting back to the theory craved for contextual knowlegde. After close to a decade of yoga, one year of attending open lectures on Vedic literature (Taavi Kassila), readings of Ptanajali, studies on Hindu deities and yoga philosophy (Mircea Eliade), I now, suddenly, felt that it made sense to read this Kashmiri thinker (950-1020) again. Finally, I felt I got it.

Seen from a contemporary point of view Abhinavagupta is doing a mix of art (theatre) theory and religious metaphysics. Aesthetically speaking it is based on empirical remarks. The sensual base for both Bharata Muni’s and Abhinavagupta’s work is the idea that sight and hearing are so strong senses, that they can overcome the dominance of the ego. In arts their role is crucial for the resonance of the emotional state of the artist, the work of art (= theatre) and the audience, which are glued up by the rasa.

All around the world philosophy presents itself as universal, but everywhere it is ethnic – like Heidegger’s flirt with German poetry, Derrida’s writing as a mirror of French intellectual chatting and the Anglo-Saxon (analytic philosophy) aspiration for a thinking were there would be no cultural traces left (reductive technocratic approach).

I read all schools, but I understood better Italian philosophers after a year in Italy and many philosophers have been impossible to understand without a hard work on understanding their cultural context.

A key concept which I did not understand, during my first shallow romance with Abhinavagupta (and Bharata who he is commenting upon), is resonance. He discusses the rasas (the Erotic, the Comic, the Pathetic, the Furious, the Heroic, the Terrible, the Odious, the Marvelous and the (latter addition) Peaceful) as entities connecting holistically the appropriate audience, the work, and the artist with his/her inner feelings or mental states (Delight, Laughter, Sorrow, Anger, Heroism, Fear, Disgust, Wonder). The mental states and the rasas are connected to each other, as are also the people taking part in this act of aesthetic and partly cosmic sharing. Rasa here is so not just an aesthetic concept but also a sociological one. The contextual environment, involuntary reactions (e.g. sweating) and minor feelings (e.g. arrogance) are also involved in the whole, but the basic idea of resonance, something that not just is a form of stimulation from one to another, but something that really connects artists, audiences and works of art to each other both a priori (shared metaphysical base; it all connects to a broader cosmological worldview) and following the practical, technical act of doing theatre is interesting.

Without my yoga studies, which included a lot of talk about the metaphysics of resonance, I wouldn’t have got the point. I think the metaphysical and ontological approach of these older Indian philosophers seems to strive to understand a whole cosmogony, and this goes far deeper than what I think about when I discuss aesthetics. From an aesthetic point of view it is not crucial that everybody is tuned to the same rasa, but that the people who are not tuned in the right way do not disturb the audience which can resonate successfully with the work.

In some sense Abhinavagupta’s work is probably the first theory of experience which takes the atmosphere into account (a concept which is now fashionable in e.g. Gernot Böhme’s work), and which does not only discuss a singular spectator’s engagement with a singular work of art but art as a pleasing glue for a whole community.

Coming back to destroying or reinforcing atmospheres: In most cultural contexts it is not favorable to boo. I realized this myself when, after a long summer in the African / Jamaican neighborhood of Brixton (1999) I came back to Helsinki, attended a jazz concert, and booed like the audience’s had been doing in the clubs where I had been to for the last months. Everybody looked at me like I would have insulted the players, and that’s what I actually did (I still feel ashamed of it), as booing in our context is a dramatic deed, not just a form of call-and-response. But even Abhinavagupta, I am sure, would have accepted my presence if I would have just been sitting there, being kind.

I think this applied idea of resonance is actually the key for many other aesthetic issues. When we experience holistically – this is something Dewey, Heidegger and Benjamin all worked to understand in their own ways – we, I suppose, often aspire to resonate with the community around us. What would be the pleasure of being the only one who understands a play, in an audience where nobody else is getting it? Who'd attend a football match if the audience would not quite be tuned into the same rasas?

The philosophy of Abhinavagupta is a beautiful text in itself, and reading it I felt that I am sometimes enjoying (bhoga) a poetical trip advisor for theatre which sneakily at the same time is a trip advisor to Kashmir Shaivism. It is actually weird that his philosophy never became a bigger hit here in Northern Europe, if you think about the fact that Germans translated very early Indian theater classics (18th Century).

Coincidentally, I was reading Abhinavagupta on my trip to Gdansk, where I took part in the meeting of the coordinators of the Nordic Summer University. Gdansk happens to be the birth city of one of the most famous Western philosophers who have been commenting on Indian philosophy, i.e. Arthur Schopenhauer (later ones include Nietzsche, Irigaray and then Langer, who made an American remake of Abhinavagupta’s work).

Nowadays we often get to hear the mantra that Western / European philosophers are not at all interested in non-Western philosophers. Although there is a truth in this critique, one has to remember that there is a long tradition of being interested in non-Western philosophy starting already from the Greeks and then, on the other hand, it is important to divide the contemporary Western world of philosophy into two parts. Anglo-Saxon philosophers, who dominate the scene, are not even interested in what we continental Europeans, and even less what we in small European countries do. We are actually out also in Germany and France. If we want to have a career we have to learn well a dominant philosophical language and publish in a dominant scene.

The critics of the West – who I really fancy, although I think they have to rethink the West/Europe – seem to (looking at the examples chosen) talk about us as one group, but all their practical examples are taken from these old colonial masters and dominant cultures. Like many here in our small Eastern European countries, it seems that the critics of the West somehow colonialize themselves. Couldn't we cosmopolitan philosophers who speak many languages and who read philosophy from all around the world discuss together, or do we all have to colonialize ourselves in the core fields of Western philosophical colonialism to become worthy of our soulmates' critical attention?

Chasing the good European – Nietzsche’s expression – you have to look at the East side: my Finnish, Polish, Slovakian, Hungarian, Romanian and Balkan colleagues seem to read books more globally, and often even with the help of good language skills. We will never, though, become big in the US, in Great Britain, Germany or France, and many of us do not even aspire that.

Of course in one sense Helsinki, Warsaw and Bratislava are also just French, German and Anglo-Saxon colonies, where people try to become a part of the ‘Western’ scene - although I'd say that we are mostly more cosmopolitan than in those big countries. As we don’t have a magnificent philosophical past like Iran or India the ones who do not make it often find themselves to be total international dropouts.

The good side of this lack of history? I just realized, while reading Abhinavagupta, that this makes it easier for us to read him (and many others). I don't think that I am in any risk of colonializing him – this reaction is understandable for a British philosopher who’s heritage is colonialist and who's language is the main language of colonialism – and I don’t think that I can fully ever even understand French or German philosophers, so why would I be too neurotic about understanding Indian ones? With my dying small language (i.e. Finnish, I am just an outsider visiting English language in my blog) I am anyway an outsider. And I too try to wake people up to see the power structures (see link).

Right now reading the witty and hilarious Can (Non-)Europeans Think (2015) by Hamid Dabashi (who gained lately a bit of fame by quarreling with Zizek), I started to think that actually Abhinavagupta’s idea of the rasas could be turned into a theory of the ethnic atmospheres of the philosophical market. The rasas are meant to be universal, but I’d say that feelings, atmospheres and aesthetic reactions, though basically universal, are also cultural, and in a decisive manner if you try to understand philosophy.

German anxiety (which craves for an understanding of German poetry), clean-cut (Freudian anal) Anglo-Saxon thinking and French philosophical (consciously obscure) arrogance – without forgetting the poetic writings of the Arab philosophers – all frame philosophy with differing potentials and boundaries. Also, through their resonance with a whole cultural reality (and audience), they all require that you get the right cultural competence and get into the right ‘ethnic’ mood to study them.

Extending Abhinavagupta’s wise thinking to this would require a lot of non-exegetical work, but I think it could be worth it. Basically, of course, even ‘philosophical’ itself could be thought of as a kind of a sub-rasa, if not an important part of the theatre (Beckett?), then at least otherwise an important part of all cultures. Rasas could provide an inspiration to get the picture straight, and to understand how philosophy functions.

Taking it back to Abhinavagupta and his work: I think I need to read the basics of Sanskrit. Being as busy as I am, I might have to wait for my retirement, though. But where’s the hurry? Whatever tradition you are from, in philosophy you can be red hot only when you are over 60 years old. That's when you have read enough to become a living library. I wish I will find as many great thinkers as possible from all around the world before I (hopefully one day) enter that stage.

Anyway, philosophy needs to be bridged in various ways to become global, so that a well-functioning fusion and/or intercultural dialogue could one day be a norm. Probably now we need aggressive critique (thank you Dabashi!) and attacks on the negative power-relations, but also these critiques need to become more subtle and less based on the Stockholm syndrome. Stop nagging to the contemporary colonial philosophers like they'd be your parents. In that way you marginalize us as much as they do. Do your thing, and find people like you (us) - and work together. We need to find the existing structures, people and traditions who/which are already working on it. As post-colonialist theory keeps reminding us about the fact that there are alternatives to 'white man's' philosophy, it is good to remember that there are alternatives for the 'West' inside the West, and everywhere you find work which strives for a global unerstanding of the possibilities of philosophy.

"In the beginning, the crossing of the river of the knowable is, I know, agitated and supportless: but as we advance doggedly along this road, we cease to be amazed by built bridges, city foundations, or anything else." Thank you Abhinavagupta. Heading there!

Friday, September 9, 2016

(10) Al-Ghazali, Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God

I am an atheist, but I do not belive that science would be the whole truth of the world and on the other hand I respect other people's beliefs, as long as they are not against basic human rights (which leaves out e.g. racism).

Since young I have been reading religious and mythological classics from Edda to Gilgames, from Tao Te Ching to the Quran. I have found many of these works highly interesting both from a philosophical and from a poetical point of view, but no book in this 'genre' has so far been so philosophical and poetical at the same time as Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali's (1058-1111) The Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God, which I am just finishing here on my couch.

Thinking about the history of Western philosophy Al-Ghazali is the man who first expressed philosophically his doubts for the information provided by our senses. Descartes stole the idea or just picked up one of its echoes (European philosophy is full of Arabic and Islamic influence) for his Discourse on Method (1637), where this doubt became the base of Western rationalist paranoia.

Al-Ghazali is one of my favorite non-modern philosophers, but in the The Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God he is quite a literary author as well. This Persian theologist studied philosophy, theology and e.g. sufism in the area of today's Iran and Irak, and taught in the university of Al-Nizamiyya in Bagdad. But he definitely was a writer too.

According to the historical legacy of Islam there are 99 beautiful names anchored to God, and Al-Ghazali runs through The Avenger, The Dutyful One, He Who Times All Things Perfectly, The Light, The Guide, and many others. The names sound enigmatic and they are consciously kept obscure (no retarded pedagogy here). They are springboards for philosophical speculations. The book is written in a warm, poetical way, inviting the reader to think about issues that are so hard to grab that one maybe has, in the end, to discuss them in a poetic manner.

One of my favorites, The Equitable, The Impartial, The Just (al-'Adl) includes a poetic description of how human beings are built, a beautiful explanation of societal and somatic order, which feels like already paving the way for philosophers of the body like Deleuze and Irigaray (who try to rethink the order), at the same time as it shows (this aspiration is not shared by these later Western philosophers) a high respect for all well-working orders, so high that one has to ask what is more important, a well-working order or a singular deed which by first sight looks like the right thing to do.

The Wonderful Originator, The Unprecedented and Incomparable Inventor, The Absolute Cause (al-Badî, 95) explains why only God can be really original: all our worldly originality is just relational. This relational aesthetics is also one of the strengths of the book. One just has to start swimming in it, and start to get the whole picture piece by piece.

As a lecturer of visual culture theory I cannot by express my love for Light (al-Nûr).

"(T)hat which itself is visible and makes others visible is called a light. When existence is contrasted with non-existence, (it becomes obvious that) visibility pertains to existence and that there is not darkness darker than non-existence. That which is free of the darkness of non-existence, rather from the possibility of non-existence, and brings everything else from the darkness of non-existence to the visibility of existence is worthy of being called light. (...) Just as there is not a particle of the light of the sun which does not point to the existence of the illuminating sun, so also there is not a particle of all the things that exist in the heavens and the earth and that which is between them which does not by the (mere) possibility of its existence point to the necessary existence of its creator.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

(8 & 9) Herman Melville, Bartleby (& Billy Budd)

Anarchists and left-wing daydreamers have, among other resistance-minded works of middle class prose, made Herman Melville’s Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street (1856), one of their most fetishized works of literature. Bartleby is seen to be a revolutionary cocktail of passive resistance, civil disobedience and intellectual freedom.

Last week, when chatting about high, low and class, I told my colleague, curator Nora Sternfeld about the Astor Place Riot, where Melville had a way different role. The story of the Astor Place Riot is a story about class war anchored to high and low culture. Described in detail in Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchies in 19th century America (1988) it could be said to be uncanny from the point of view of aesthetics.

Shakespeare was only popular culture in early 19th century America, and so the first British highbrow performance was booed out (partly with the help of eggs, potatoes, apples, lemons and shoes) in New York, May 1849. The backslash of ‘cultural development’ made the cultural elite frustrated.

Aesthetically the polarization was lead by the two then leading actors of their own Shakespeare genres. Edwin Forrest’s network was the working class and the gangs of New York, drawing followers from the violent immigrant area of Five Points (the site of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York). Upper class Anglophiles supported the freshly imported Briton, William Charles Macready.

As a member of the highbrow mob of New York, Melville signed a demand that highbrow theatre should get a new chance, and that the police should be defending its second coming. As things escalated a couple of days later, the demonstration of the lower class Shakespeare fans grew in the end to be an attack on the Astor Opera House in the evening of May 10, 1849. (Just imagine how football fans would act if their sport would be taken away from them and made into a creepy highbrow act.) Not only the police, but also the militia, mounted troops, light artillery and a total of 550 men defended highbrow Shakespeare against the lowbrow crowd.

22-31 rioters were killed, 48 were wounded, and 50 to 70 policemen were injured. The high version of Shakespeare had so won, and the popular one slowly faded away, not to be back before the advent of the feature movies.

Nora asked me: “but Melville… he wrote Bartleby?” I had never given it a thought, so I had to get back to the short story.

The protagonist of the story, a Wall Street lawyer, hires a new helper into his office. His name is Bartleby. Bartleby's presence is soon found out to be not just vague, but nearly surrealistically passive. Whatever he is supposed to do, he answers - not even laconically, but in a totally disinterested manner: “I would prefer not to”.

The protagonist, the man running the office tries in vain to start a constructive dialogue with his employee but nothing helps. Bartleby does not even leave the building when the lawyer moves out with the other members of the crew. In the end, Bartleby is taken out from the house by force. He dies in jail.

The story was published 7 years after the Astor Place Riot. Did Melville feel sorry for the people who's art he stole, or is his human touch here just about the solidarity and compassion between two privileged men? Or, was New York’s cultural life so bad, that he was actually just fighting for diversity when he took a side against the lower classes in the case of the Astor Place Riot? It could have been hard to predict that popular Shakespeare dried out after the victory of the highbrow interpretation.

Civil disobedience has, anyway, been too much reserved for middle class males, and one cannot say that Bartleby would be much about anything else, however idealistically you'd be reading the story.

Anyway, if we forget the political bubble surrounding the work, Bartleby is a beautiful narrative.

And Melville, should he be labeled an enemy of the people? I would prefer not to. In Moby Dick, which was published in 1851, the sailors and the poor people helping on boats might be a bit appropriated and romanticized, but still they are portrayed as human beings with dignity. The book is as great as Billy Budd, another sailor romance by Melville.

Budd's story is way different from Bartleby's. Melville wrote on it 1888-1891.It was published posthumously 1924.

Budd is an innocent, beautiful man, who, in the era of mutinies, in 1843, happens to become an object of jealousy for an officer, who keeps constantly nagging and lying about Budd. In the end Budd, a simple man for whom talking is not the easiest form of self-expression, hits the officer, who dies. Budd gets hanged, and the whole Foucauldian story about hierarchies, unjustice and the complex ethical question of how to punish or how to think about Budd (in the end, he was under heavy pressure and with no human rights), dominates the experience of the book.

Differing from Melville's misanthropy in Moby Dick, the story of Billy Budd shows many positive, idealistic sides of the human species. Many characters in the book really strive to do the right thing, but in real life that is of course often very hard.

I got into Budd following my love affair with Claire Denis' witty and sensitive film Beau Travail (1999). Denis transfers the story to the world of the French Foreign Legion (La Légion étrangère), where it gets way more oriented towards gay erotics, post-colonialism and men's studies. The film is, though, so much more obscure, that I recommend to first read the book.

Crime, punishment, hierarchies and antagonisms - both in books and real life. Melville has never been an easy writer for me. But I cannot say that I would regret reading him.