Erotics of Art and Science

In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

Even More. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)

-Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (1964, p.4)

Overall, Sontag’s essay argues for a new type of criticism: she calls for a shifting of the weight given to meaning and content back to the sensuous aspects of an artwork, back to what it is and how it does what it does. Though they continue to remain closely tethered (as I hope my thesis shows), there is a perceptible rift between art and science that I think has its roots in the same period where Sontag locates the origin of interpretation in art criticism. Interpretation has a role in that rift as well.

To paraphrase, Sontag states that Greek philosophy offers the first theory of art—art as an imitation of reality. It is this mimetic model that makes art problematic and in need of defense, giving rise to the separation of form and content. She says that, although most (in the 1960s) have rejected the theory of art as representation for the theory of art as subjective expression, “content still comes first.” Her thesis develops from here but Plato’s theory, as she points out, introduces the issue of value. Art to Plato has little value because it is only an imitation and is therefore a lie. Sontag notes Aristotle’s rebuttal that art has therapeutic, emotional value. Nevertheless, value’s link to truth becomes the basis for a future crack. For centuries, poetic wisdom holds its ground while science and art continue as intertwined, unspecialized modes of knowing. For a long period “the difference between the reasoning of science and the imagining of poetry does not yet exist because no paradigm provides a consensus for such verities” (Bök, 1998, p.23).

Christian Bök charts what he defines as the four main phases (the animatismic, the mechanismic, the organismic, the cyborganismic) in the common history of science and art. He notes that both have gone through these phases, yet the two disciplines have not evolved in synch. Science has evolved toward anonymity and poetry toward “eponymity.” Bök States that, “the absence of an author in science serves an allotelic interest (justifying itself for the sake of a finality outside of its own language), while the presence of the author in poetry serves as an autotelic interest (justifying itself for the sake of a finality inside of its own language)” (1998, p.18). After creating this distinction between science and poetry, he goes on to define the relationship between the two:

Allotelic interests have always regarded autotelic interests as a waste of time, particularly in a capitalist economy where only the most effective arsenal of productive tactics can prevail. Is it any wonder then that, for such imperial cynicism, science and poetry function within a relation, not of genre, but of power? The waxing influence of science has always implied the waning relevance of poetry—as if science must capitalize upon the competition for truth in order to monopolize the legitimation of truth (1998, p.18).

The phases are not explicitly defined in terms of chronology, as clearly there are no definitive boundary years with regards to any paradigm, but they generally follow the major historical periods we use. We can locate his “mechanismic” phase in the overlaps of enlightenment and industrialization. Where knowledge banks steadily fill up and intellect swells, capital weighs in on the value scales of verity and pulls with it the “allotelic” approach. By the “organismic,” or modern phase, science’s interpretation of the universe, whose objective truth is attained via reason, can fill the age’s order of productivity, applicability and progress. This brings us to the mid 20th century, where “hypertrophy of intellect” is contiguous with the fade into the next phase and the construction of a “shadow world of meanings.”

I am struck by the similarity of Sontag’s language to the “shadow photons” of David Deutsch and the “many interacting worlds” of Hall, Deckert, and Wiseman. These physicists, at the very brink of the tangible universe, have created parallel worlds to give meaning to a world that threatens to have no meaning. In the PBS documentary The Elegant Universe, string theorist Brian Greene nearly breaks down in the throes of describing the extra dimensions he so desperately defends, “the universe is not nonsensical, it’s got to make sense.” He expresses what seems to be the underlying preoccupation of science, that of interpretation—a perpetual hope for a stable explanation. Furthermore his gasp seems to body forth a condition of the thinking mind, namely its resistance to meaninglessness. It is not about what the universe is and how it does what it does but rather why and for what reason.

Though we may have now passed into something beyond even the “cyborganismic” phase, I still observe much of the same justification and legitimation—a hangover from the modern. But now capital seems to have usurped truth’s value. With an overabundant supply of knowledge, science legitimates itself not by its claim to provide truth or to explain reality (as it grasps at the fringed edges of a reality it itself fabricates), but rather through the by-products of its experiments—those side effects that are “productive” and “applicable.”[1] The technologies science invents in order to observe what it postulates and to interpret those observations are the very technologies so readily brought to market.[2] What then of scientists? Stengers suggests that, “a plausible future is within sight in which there will obviously be scientists, but they, as more or less competent employees, will no longer be distinguished from anyone else who sells their labor power”(2010, pg.9). In the paradigm of artistic research, is this not an accurate prediction of artists as well?

When our understanding of the world is so indebted to our technologies, and when those same technologies determine economic structures, how can art attempt to legitimate itself other than either as a rebellion against the norm or by adopting the language of science and capital literally and figuratively via an art market? Bök says, “in the face of such scientific absurdities, poetry has responded by portraying itself as a liberalized experiment" (1998, p.37). Art resorts to the very terms that science used to build its cultural pedestal—we now “experiment,” conduct “research,” and go for PhDs—one can actually be a doctor of art. Over fifty years after Sontag wrote these very words: “the idea that a work of art is primarily its content […] still exerts an extraordinary hegemony” (1964, p.2). If we read art as its meaning—exactly the way Sontag warned not to, then just as with science, the by-products of art (its form) are also its means of monetizing and hence legitimizing itself. In this future, scientists and artists will both be competent employees in the face of capitalism. Yet, in the age of innovation, science offers a seedbed of intellectual property that art will not outgrow.

But it might be precisely the linkage of value to capital that has allowed a paradigm to change its requirements for what constitutes truth. When the fundamental particles of the indirectly observed world, are made in the laboratory, then imagination is the opposable thumb on the manufacturing manus of science. Prigogine and Stengers observe that scientists have become poets “in the etymological sense, that the poet is a ‘maker’—active” (Bök, p.37). With its fabulations of black holes, extra dimensions, holographic renormalization groups, dark matter and parallel universes, contemporary physics has become a science of the imaginary. “Science has finally achieved the hyperbole of its own ‘death,’ so to speak, disappearing into a condition of tautologic metalepsis, paradoxically becoming both the cause and effect of its own virtual reality” (Bök, p.37). And if scientists themselves heed to the call of Isabelle Stengers and “not only recognize that their practices are an integral part of the referents they cause to exist but that those referents refer only to those practices” (2010, p.18), what then of the old rift between art and science? If we look back through the double-slit in the opposite direction, we see poets borrowing from science, physicists resorting to poetic wisdom, and that the fissure is capital itself.

Even so, it is hard to imagine a situation other than one in which thousands of researchers (three of whom are artists paired up with “inspiration partners”)[3] receive grants to build massive magnetic assemblages of silicon, copper and fiber optics at epically exciting and equally carcinogenic proportions and funding streams in from all over the globe in full confidence that by next year, or next decade those technologies will end up in the drooling jowls of the ever-savvy consumer. And it is without a doubt that the big dogs will sit back, maybe buy some art for their second home on cell phone planet Earth, and watch as science dog perpetually chases the invisible sausage dangling just of out reach from a fishing pole attached to its shock collar, while art dog catches up just enough to sniff its ass. But maybe they will mate again and quantum anomalies can be sensuous instead of make sense. In that case, we still need to listen to Sontag. “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics” of art and science (1964, p.10), where the oscillating wavelengths of these two forces will create an interference pattern as strange and indecipherable as those generated in the double-slit experiments.

[1] Justification is no longer a matter of truth but a matter of exponentially growing numbers on a screen—the number of zeros behind the first particle collision, the number of zeros behind the first intellectual property patent filed at CERN and not least the number of zeros behind the venture capitalist’s first investment return, allowing for the purchase of a new artwork for the sole purpose of adding a zero to its worth and selling it to a friend, inspiring Pace to open a new gallery in Silicon Valley.
[2] The quantum mechanical experiments with photons led directly to the development of lasers – and the application of lasers now is hardly countable from laser surgery, DVDs and laser printing to nuclear fusion and the US Navy’s laser weapon system (LAWS). CERN’s portfolio of over 230 registered patents includes the unfathomably monetized World Wide Web.

Table of Contents

Vanishing Exercise
Through a Double Slit
No Dreams, No Logic
Erotics of Art and Science