The parts and the wholes

by CarlD

There’s this house I pass on my way to work that has a yard cluttered with kitschy lawn ornaments – plywood cutouts in vague shapes, garishly painted as bunnies and deer and toadstools and whatnot. They’re for sale; the guy makes them in his shop out back. It’s a harmless enough thing, but high art it’s not.

Nothing this good, I'm afraid.

Near the front door, casually placed just beside this orgy of low taste, is a half-size cast reproduction of a classic greco-roman statue, a draped woman pouring from an urn on her shoulder.

You get the idea.

A touch of class? Another corner of the same aesthetic? A gift from a distant relation? The last relic of a fall from higher station? So many speculations can be speculated as long as closer investigation is foregone….

No matter what, whatever services of status elevation this object could possibly supply (assuming this is its objective) are pretty much disqualified by its framing surrounds: the low commerce, the kitsch aesthetic, the diy workshop on premises, the dollar store curtains in the windows. Of course we may hope for an ironic touch, perhaps even a droll nose-thumbing at the snobbery of borrowed taste that seeks to plunder the charisma of dead civilizations. Is a conscious juxtaposition of these mismatched yet oddly equivalent artifacts too much to imagine? I’ve seen worse in upscale galleries….

Well again, speculation is cheap. Let’s think more about framing. Does it do this yard more service to take it in as a whole, or to focus selectively? Assuming the classical sculpture is a bit like a bow on a sow, wouldn’t it be friendly to focus on the bow? It’s not like this house is going to be a mansion anytime soon; the commerce of kitsch is no doubt part of its conditions of existence; a little corner of uplift may be all that those constraints afford. (Another version of this would be the tricked out car or truck parked in the lawn of a rundown trailer. Bang for the buck, status-wise.) The best move of course is to see it all and to love it for what it is. That zen is not widely distributed in the population, so selective focus may be the most realistic option; and in the presence of ideals that we all fall short of, realistically the best.

Some assembly required.

I think of this in relation to the feminist critique of the ‘objectifying’ masculine gaze. Men viciously pull women apart into dismembered boobs here, butts there, legs stacked in the corner, maybe necklines and brow ridges in another pile if we’re classy. The violence of this procedure is undeniable. I’m fine with my bits but I certainly wouldn’t want them hacked off and taken as representations of my whole being or used without my express written consent and approval.

But isn’t there also a loving way of applying our attention selectively that isn’t violently reductive? My wife loves my lips, and I hers; we lovingly ignore the smells that come out of them in the morning. We’re both overweight, with bumps and curves where they ought not to be; our loving gazes select around these visual inconveniences, eventually finding their way to the ideal within the real. We both have our black moods and bad moments. These are just some of the many infelicities, little and big, that pass unremarked and unsanctioned in a successful relationship.

Isn’t the nicest thing someone can do for us sometimes to carve us up into bits and focus on the good ones? Don’t we do this ourselves when we make assessments of our assets and deficits, ornaments and stigmas, and turn ourselves toward people and situations to foreground the former and background the latter? Don’t the strategies of information-management and identity performance described by Erving Goffman require this sort of polite complicity from their audiences? And aren’t people too big to keep all of in mind all the time anyway?

I offer this as a meditation on our object orientations.


26 Responses to “The parts and the wholes”

  1. Carl: “Isn’t the nicest thing someone can do for us sometimes to carve us up into bits and focus on the good ones? ”

    Kvond: I can’t tell, are you joking?

  2. Could it be that what we have here is a disjuncture between the violence of “carve us up” and the relative non-violence of “focus”? The result is the ambiguity to which Kvond points: Is this a joke? A critique of theories of “the gaze,” which see violence in mere looking? An idea for a work of art: Something along the lines of Marcel Duchamps’ Nude descending staircase, with the good bits, e.g. the lips, rendered realistically, to produce an implicit critique whose target remains ambiguous—the men who look at only these parts of women? or the women who feel attacked by the masculine gaze? critics caught up in a never-ending spiral of ironies? How would it affect the decoding if the eyes and lips were realistic (one version) or, instead the tits and ass (another version)?

  3. Yes, you’re both right about the ambiguity. I’m afraid I don’t know how to both layer in codes and end up at a clean, neat point. Some assembly required.

    John, it’s interesting isn’t it that ‘the gaze’ became a metaphor every bit as violent as physical dismemberment. If, as Mead thinks, our selves develop in interaction with what we pay attention to, would this have to mean that the self is inherently the product of violence? Is this any part of why Buddhists want to do away with it?

  4. From a song called “Museum of Idiots”:

    Chop me up into pieces,
    If it pleases, if it pleases

    And when the chopping is through
    Every piece will say, “I love you”

  5. Is this any part of why Buddhists want to do away with it?

    First time I’ve heard of this. Got a source?

  6. I’m referring to anatta, ‘not-self’. First-page Google references agree in broad outline; here is Wikipedia. Basically, the idea is that the convenient fiction of a coherent, enduring self is one of the things we may attach ourselves and cling to, causing stress and misery. Isn’t there something analogous in Daoism?

  7. Carl, I still don’t know if you were joking, but I don’t really think it has to do with “parts” or cutting up, its the way in which we are caught up in economies in which we neither have control, autonomy, or even know the rules of the game (all in degrees).

  8. To Carl: So the argument is, If Self then Gaze; if no Gaze, then no Self. The logic is clear, but it doesn’t feel right. How would you characterize a Zen-infuenced obsession with the transience of cherry blossoms, the intensity of haiku, or the moments in tea ceremony or martial arts when the self disappears in the act?

  9. P.S. What just floated into my mind is a Japanese expression, isshun no roman , i.e., a one-second romance. One person sees another, on a train platform for example. He or she falls instantly in love; but then the moment passes. I think of a famous TV commercial in which a middle-aged man boards a train and finds himself seated facing a pretty girl. At the next stop she gets off. The catch copy is “Ai wa, tooi hanabi de wa nai,” i.e., “Love isn’t distant fireworks.” Here the “distant” refers to distance in time, the message being that one-second romance isn’t just for younger guys.

  10. On the contrary Kevin, I think we have very considerable control over what we focus on and how we focus on it. So much so, in fact, that our failures to embrace and take responsibility for that control become an existential absurdity, which I suppose is indeed the joke I am telling (as usual). As to the metaphor of carving, in context that was being playful with the more (optionally) gruesome imagery of the ‘issue’ paragraph mediately preceding.

    John, I suppose I understand the Zen gaze to be ideally unobsessed, and therefore completely present. What’s missing in that gaze is judgment, so it transcends the options I’m considering in the post.

    I absolutely love the idea of one-second romance. I do that all the time.

  11. I guess I did not make myself clear. The point is what others focus on, and what they do with it. When a black person walks into a white neighborhood, well, his skin color (and many other things) suddenly are swept up into an economy or several economies over which he may have little control (or predictablity).

  12. Oh yeah, I’m sorry. You’re right. The post is mostly from the perspective of the gazer, not the gazee, so I didn’t make that connection in your remark.

    Goffman’s book on stigma is really terrific on the dynamics of identity performance and (mis)reception; if you’ve not read it, I recommend it highly as an especially stanky dead vole. The success of identity performance is highly dependent on the willingness of audiences to play along, and there are many reasons such as the one you mention why they may not. Btw Bourdieu loved Goffman even though he considered him too ‘interactionist’ and not ‘structural’ enough. I think Goffman (like all the interactionists) was pre-Latourian in wanting to show how structures get assembled out of interactions.

  13. Did you read the contrastive essay(s) I sent you on Bourdieu and Latour? Do you read “structuralism” as the dividing point between them?

  14. By the way, the reason why I took in the position of the gazee is because I was trying to feret out your meanings in:

    “Isn’t the nicest thing someone can do for us sometimes to carve us up into bits and focus on the good ones?”

    Which seems really a gazee perspective.

  15. Oh wow! I started to read that, was loving it, and got distracted by an avalanche of student papers. Thanks for the reminder, I’ll move that back to the top of my queue.

    Just shooting from the hip I’d guess that is the key distinction. But Bourdieu sometimes gets caricatured as a vulgar structuralist and that’s not entirely fair; the point of the ‘structured structuring structures’ analysis is to show how durable dispositions get ongoingly built out of conditioned creative strategic action, a la Marx’s remark in 18th Brumaire about making the world in conditions not of our choosing. Apart from the tactics of branding I read Bourdieu and Latour as being pretty compatible.

  16. Carl: “Apart from the tactics of branding I read Bourdieu and Latour as being pretty compatible.”

    Kvond: I wonder if you will keep to this after the article, as it points out with some rigor and historical detail that Latour organized his theory in response to, and one might say, refutation of Bourdieu’s dominance.

  17. Putting this here for general relevance:

    “Millions of items in the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.” William James, The Principles of Psychology

  18. an improper use of I.

  19. Intriguing but cryptic. Do you mean in the sense of Nietzsche’s critique of Descartes in Beyond Good and Evil, that it may not be ‘I’ but ‘it’ that thinks?

  20. Nietzsche’s grammatical critique is a good one, and pretty funny. But simply as a count of ridiculous (without getting into the kind of philosophical arguments that tire people out), the idea that EVERYTHING that “I” experience is something that “I” has assented to is…well, silly. I wonder if animals assent, or simply don’t experience things.

    “Interest” “assent” and “I” seem very confused here.

  21. Kvond, could you send us all links to “the contrastive essay(s) …. on Bourdieu and Latour”? I, for one, would like to read them.

  22. John, probably easiest if I just forward you the file Kvond sent me. I’ll get right on it. The author does argue that Bourdieu and Latour converge on relationality (I think that’s the term he uses, I’m away from it right now) but that the convergence is best mediated through Foucault. I’m still chewing through it, not because it’s unpleasant but because I’m multitasking it with a bunch of other obligations.

  23. Perhaps I didn’t send the best essay. The one I have in mind is:

    Why Science Studies
    Has Never Been Critical of Science
    Some Recent Lessons on How to Be a
    Helpful Nuisance and a Harmless Radical

    email me if interested:

  24. p.s. Carl, if I did not send this one along, its the one I think you would find most interesting from a historian’s perspective, as it explores the historical context of the move from Bourdieu to Latour in the context of sociology in general, and STS in particular.


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