Sunday, July 16, 2006


For Amanda Anderson's seminar this week we are reading James Tully's Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity. So far (I'm about half-way through), I'm finding it a stunning and compelling read. In particular, it's critique of universalist perspecitivalism (what I think of as both a Kantian and Cartesian one-to-one, transcendent, universal viewpoint) is opposed to a multiple, aspectival mode of thinking/seeing, which is seen as a more just form of approaching cultural recognition and therefore more effective for present and future forms of governance, constitution-making and reforming. I was struck by this, not just for its own importance culturally and politically, but because it seemed to be modeled on the opposition that postmodern aesthetics perform. Interestingly, Tully locates this aspectivalism and its influence on certain aesthetic practices (i.e., landart) with the storytelling (narrative), artmaking, and governing practices developed in aboriginal cultures. He notes: "Jamake Highwater, a Blackfoot-American philosopher, explains that this ability of reflective disequilibrium, which is common to Aboriginal cultures, has been learned by twentieth-century European artists and writers through their interaction with 'primitive art' and slowly introduced into European cultures under the name 'post-modern'" (28 italics added).

The notion of an aesthetic "reflective disequilibium" providing purchase on ways of rethinking cultural politics and forms of governance is, again, crucial in its own riht, of course, but in that it's totally inline with my interest in conceptual art... Exciting! With that in mind, I'd like to place part of an essay by Smithson alongside some quotes from Tully. (This isn't necessarily the best example of Smithson's writings on perspective, but I don't have my collected essays with me, so it'll have to do.):

An excerpt from Smithson's "A Crystal Land":

We arrived at the Great Notch Quarry, which is situated "about three hundred yards south west of the Great Notch station of the Erie Rail road." The quarry resembled the moon. A gray factory in the midst of it all, looked like architecture designed by Robert Morris. A big sign on one building said, THIS IS A HARD HAT AREA. We started claimbing over the files and ran into a 'rockhound', who came on, I thought, like Mr.Wizard, and who gave us all kinds of rock-hound-type information in an authoritative manner. We got a rundown on all the quarries that were closed to the public, as well as those that were open.

The walls of the quarry did look dangerous. Cracked, broken, shattered; the walls threatened to come crashing down. Fragmentation, corrosion, decomposition, disintegration, rock creep debris, slides, mud flow, avalanche were everywhere in evidence. The gray sky seemed to swallow up the heaps around us. Fractures and faults spilled forth sediment, crushed conglomerates, eroded debris and sandstone. It was an arid region, bleached and dry. An infinity of surfaces spread in every direction. A chaos of cracks surrounded us.

On the top of a promontory stood there motionless rockdrill against the blank which was the sky. High-tention towers transported electric cable over the quarry. Dismantled parts of steam shovels, tread machines and trucks were lined up in random groups. Such objects interrupted the depositions of waste that formed the general condition of the place. What vegetation there was seemed partially demolished. Newly made boulders eclipsed parts of a wire and pipe fence. Railroad tracks passed by the quarry, the ties formed a redundant sequence of modules, while the steel tracks projected the modules into an imperfect vanishing point.

On the way back to Manhattan, we drove through the Jersey Meadows, or more accurately the Jersey Swamps-a good location for a movie about life on mars. It even has a network of canals that are chocked by acres of tall reeds. Radio towers are scattered throughout these bleak place. Drive-inns, motels and gas stations exist along the highway, and behind them are smoldering garbage dumps. South, toward Newark and Bayonne, the smoke stacks of heavy industry add to the general air pollution.

As we drove throughout the Lincoln Tunnel, we talked about going on another trip, to Franklin Furnace; there one might find minerals that glow under ultra violet light or 'black light'. The countless cream colored square tiles on the walls of the tunnel sped by, until a sigh announcing New York broke the tiles' order.

Industry and arid wastelands that are "unlocatable" or that produce an "infinity of surfaces" are in effect returning land and space to multipying forms of vision and material complexity. It is as though the universalizing perspective necessary to justify the expansion of modes and forms of capitalist production, and the unifying vision that operates as the all-seeing eye, which guards the strict division of labor, is in a losing a battle against nature. Or that the cultural uniformity of "Nowhereland" (the moon, Mars, space, i.e., the universalist perspective of Euro-Western cultures) cannot bear up under the weight of "the avalanche everywhere in evidence."

Now Tully:

"As a consequence of the overlap, interaction, and negotiation of cultures, the experience of cultural difference is internal to cultures. This is the most difficult aspect of the new concept to grasp. On the older, essentialist view, the 'other' and the experiences of otherness were by definition associated with another culture. One's own culture provided an identity in the form of a seamless background or horizon against which one determined where one stood on fundamental questions (whether this identity was 'British' , 'modern', 'woman', or whatever). Having an identity consisted in being oriented in this essential space, whereas the loss of such a fixed horizon was equated with an 'identity crisis'; with the loss of all horizons. On the aspectival view, cultural horizons change as one moves about, just like natural horizons. The experience of otherness is internal to one's own identity, which consists in being oriented in an aspectival intercultural space constituted by the three features mentioned above" (13).

For Tully, the "three features"that all claims to cultural diversity and recognition have in common, despite their internal and external differences (and this is in terms of their constitutional or political demands) are: 1) "demands for cultural recognition are aspirations for appropriate forms of self government." 2) "The second similarity is the complementary claim that the basic laws and institutions of modern societies, and their authoritative traditions of interpretation, are unjust insofar as they thwart the forms of self government appropriate to the recognition of cultural diversity. and 3) The final similarity[...]is the ground of both the aspiration to culturally appropriate forms of self rule and the claim of injustice. It is the assumption that culture is an irreducible and constitutive aspect of politics. The diverse ways in which citizens think about, speak, act and relate to others in participating in a constitutional association (both the abilities they exercise and the practices in which they exercise them), whether they are making, following, or going against the rules and conventions in any instance, are always to some extent the expression of their different cultures. A constitution can seek to impose one cultural practice, one way of rule following, or it can recognize a diversity of cultural ways of being a citizen, but it cannot eliminate, overcome or transcend this cultural dimension of politics."

More to come....

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