Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book Review Pt. 1: Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey

One of the really big, basic questions that pops up in pretty much every arena of human activity is, How hard should I think about this stuff? When do I loose my critical thinking upon a subject, and when do I rein it back in? Let me give you an example: if you've ever taken a class outside of your field of expertise, you'll recall how most of your "introduction" to the subject consisted of learning what questions not to ask. For me, learning about special-relativity physics mostly involved learning to ignore questions like "What do we mean by an 'object'?" and "How can causality make sense vis-a-vis non-linear time?" Part of an education means learning what questions to ask, but most of it is learning what to take for granted.

This seems to be a basic epistemic (not to mention neurological) principle: in order to think about some subject, you have to ignore everything else. And by the process of concentrating on X and ignoring everything else, you end up defining X before you've even begun to consider it. It's a real pickle: you want to think about something in order to understand it, but in order to think about it at all, you sort of need to already understand it. (Incidentally, Plato formulates this problem in Meno's Paradox, and getting around it is one reason why Socrates posited that all learning is really just remembering.)

Another problem is part of the problem is existential--that is, the "Why Bother?" which occupied mid-twentieth-century French intellectuals and depressives of all stripes. Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus is the definitive investigation into correlation between 1) thinking too much and 2) suicide: "Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined." We'll only skirt the issue here by noting that, in fact, being well-adjusted involves avoiding lines of thought which lead to bad outcomes (or in other words: pragmatists are healthier than ruthless seekers of truth). As DFW puts it, healthy people "get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't."

But so okay: there are excellent reasons to be suspicious of careful thinking. To wit: it's epistemically impossible, practically inefficient, and emotionally dangerous.

Still, the opposite doesn't look too promising, either. One of the boons of human storytelling is that we get to see how stupid other people are, how oblivious they are to their own stupidity, and how directly their stupidity leads to woe. You've surely got your own favorite examples; mine are 1) reality television and 2) Anna Karenina. Through effective portrayals of human thought and behavior, I get to see how Anna's history, hopes, habits, etc. lead her to act in particular ways, and how these actions lead to particular outcomes. Anna is oblivious to all this: indeed, it's her profound mis-understanding of what she wants and how to get it which determines her tragic destiny. Were she more aware, she'd likely meet a better end. So the absence of critical thought is also not a promising avenue.

All that being said, here's why I love Dave Hickey: Hickey excels at ignoring the unhelpful and invading the productive. Half of good thinking is asking the right questions, and that's what he does in this anthology of his art criticism:

-How are hope and social hierarchy related to the mystique of Las Vegas?
-What is the connection between desire, community, art, and social norms?
-"What we did not grasp was just exactly why the blazing spectacle of lawn-mowered cats, exploding puppies, talking ducks, and plummeting coyotes was so important to us."
-In what sense was Liberace in the closet, or not? And what about his fans?
-How was American car-culture born? And what does us tell us about the business of art?
-Why would Chet Baker walk away from the chance to become the next James Dean, for a life of heroin and jazz shows?
-Wadda'ya mean, masculine culture vs. everything else?
-How the hell could M. Foucalt make it all the way through the Sixties without once dropping acid?
-How do boredom and stimulation work in cinema and art? Why bother with limits?
-Wait, wait: you're telling me that people who sell art aren't just craven vultures?
-What did Perry Mason and Mission: Impossible tell us about their audience?
-What's the relationship between officious museums vs. art as a social practice? Wait: how is art a 'social practice'?"
-How did Julius Erving re-invent basketball, and what does that tell us about art?
-Why the hell would anyone write art criticism?
-Seigried and Roy?

You get the picture. Hickey's investigations are gorgeous, but one suspects that a trained monkey or even a bureaucrat could have carried them out, once Hickey'd framed the issue and formulated the questions for them.

Check back Sunday for part two of this review, where I'll discuss the most important insight in Hickey's book.

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