I'm working toward a statement about body-as-ethics, where one no longer believes, but knows, gets an ethical decision not from the head, but from the body, instantly. No consideration necessary. It's as Maehle says in his Sutras somewhere: "one does not need to believe in one's right ear."
But I can't get the whole picture clearly yet. So I'm going to basically write to myself (the prior post on the two "teachings" is also a step toward this) and as I put this language here, it will process more and more deeply; the idea is there, it's solid, but I can't see it. So this is like a blog post defogger.
I'm teaching, as I think I said, two sections of a seminar on Abject Art. If you remember college, this is 400-level. Abject art comes from the 90s, and it's very difficult to define, but it is essentially art that is about the excluded, the unmentionable, the drastically impolite, the traumatic. So it might be Mike Kelley's trauma-laden puppets, or it might be Kiki Smith's "anti-transcendent" Virgin Mary sculpture, or it might be Andre Serrano's "Piss Christ" or it might be Mona Hatoum's video installation which includes imagery taken by cameras scoping all of her available body orifices.
Abject Art, as a course, is the most recent branch on the tree of a project I've been pursuing. When I was married, I was also teaching a lot, and as the relationship grew totally confusing, I started researching it, first as a sort of private, domestic anthropology, but then progressively in terms of the French theory I was reading. The personal is political, indeed. As I've said, the shortest possible story is that I was married to a rape survivor who hadn't put her ghosts down. So I was trying to process a lot about gender roles and power and violence. But in theory terms, that turns into French feminism, Freud, phallic power, and all of that. More interestingly, I was also trying to process my own past with lay Catholicism (which had been laid upon me while very young, before I could properly interrogate it) and she had been raised by diehard Catholics, so there was a lot of "you should feel guilty" and "bodies are evil" and "desire is a necessary evil" and so on and so forth.
To keep it short and summary, I had an anti-desire religious background, a relationship that teased me with desire but punished me for feeling it (both with Catholic guilt and with "you're a man so you're a rapist" ghosting) and a bunch of theory that talked about the "revolutionary power" of "jouissance" (trans: orgasmic energy, ecstasy, incoherence, irrationality, meltdown).
I taught a whole bunch of courses between roughly 1997 and the present (continuing) that took on this situation a thousand different ways. One on the American Dream as an addiction (Requiem for a Dream, Fight Club), one on morals and madness in the 1970s (Cuckoo's Nest, Equus, Dog Soldiers--a book which was made into "Who'll Stop the Rain", Apocalypse Now), one on Marcel Duchamp and transgender political activism, one on the revolutionary rhetoric of avant-garde modernist art movements (Dada/Surrealism), one on postmodern irony and trauma (Ghost World, Amores Perros), one on avant-garde film and immersion and confrontational bodies (Schneemann's infamous FUSES, Eraserhead, and recently in that course, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Enter the Void), one on video art and the abject (one week unit on Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthey in that one, along with Vito Acconci, Mona Hatoum, a hundred others), and, as I leave out a bunch of classes, this most recent one on Abject Art: porn, shit, blood, sinking into the maternal body, visceral aesthetics, fluids, excreta, violence, discipline (in the Foucauldian sense).
A lot of that is just exploring the American landscape as I experienced it (suburbia, religion, general "be good" doctrine) with the American landscape as I knew it to be experienceable: bodies, orgasm, perversion, darkness of every metaphysical sort, intense sensation (what some minoritized sexual communities re-name pain), schizoanalysis, and so on.
But this wasn't (as you already suspect or know) an honest interrogation, it was never anthropology. It had the same problems that Surrealism or a David Lynch film has: light AND darkness, not reality. Big, imagined binaries. THIS is good, and THAT is evil! Alluring sexy evil. Eh.
That is, of course, not how reality works.
When that all faded, I still had my interests, but they started to reveal themselves as a more interesting project, very much the way that you start asana practice wanting to lose weight, and then discover bhakti.
I like art (and film, experiences generally) to be BOTH conceptual and visceral. Not necessarily "dark" or icky or "evil," but definitely both something I can think about AND feel in my belly.
So it wasn't "evil" that I wanted, to sort of "balance" the good, it was more like mind-body resolution. To think AND feel, to feel thinking, to think feeling, to get beyond that pair, even.
Now, yoga asana does not have "evil" in the way that art does. But as I discovered, yoga asana can give you a look at your own dark stuff. But at that time, it's not a conceptual evil, an imagined and alluring "evil" that looks sexy only because you're still locked into "good," the way I'd imagined it all to work.
When you confront your own dark matter, it doesn't come in Surrealist terms, all nice and Freudian, where it all leads to liberation. It's REAL terror and pain that doesn't obey the rules and terms of somebody's art project or somebody's book.
Not long ago, I got a call for papers (submissions) that was called "Cine-Ethics." How can we understand "cruel" art or film as, or having, an ethical project?
For example: there's a movie from 2002 called Irreversible. It's a told-backwards story (like Memento) about two guys who take a girl (one's ex, the other's current girlfriend) to a party where the couple has a disagreement; she leaves, alone, makes a bad choice to take the subway, and is raped (for NINE MINUTES, of which we see every second) and beaten into a coma, at which point the two guys seek horrible vengeance on some random dude in a dark gay sex club.
It's a very very mean little film, although it does have fantastically beautiful cinematography.
So can THAT be or have an ethical project? Not to write an essay here, but we might wish to "reverse" what we see, to escape, and of course, we can't, not in the film and not in reality (reality as it unfolds, anyway). Or, differently, the old modernist project of "shock the bourgeoisie" is reincarnated here as an imperative to feel something, something beyond irony. Is pain the new sincerity? Is a film that can actually hurt us, a way to create a salutory post-ironic awakeness? I haven't, of course, written these out in depth here, but I think these are questions to be reckoned with beyond the "it's all shock value" argument.
Take asana practice, again. Take my practices with David and Shelley in June, for example. Every one of them cranked pain out of me, brought it right up for expression, whereas a Christian funeral really did not.
Yes, you're right, asana practice does not bring violent rape horror into your head (perhaps it does if you have that experience). Irreversible does things to us that are perhaps unnecessary, but I think that its end result, the intense sensations it brings, do have a salutory aspect.
In a way that is not that painful, I want to bring students in my classes this kind of visceral awakeness. Physical humor, gestures, quick associations, these are some of my tools. Create laughter, switch tones from stand-up comic back to authority figure, keep people off balance now and then. Awakeness. Art that is progressively more shocking, ridiculous, sexual, violent, campy, art that is, itself, visceral, immersive. And thus the progress toward the Abject Course.
In a yoga class, it's different. I don't nearly open the environment as much, because ideally students' own movements will bring that visceral awakeness. In this sense, and famously, "the practice is the real teacher." One teaches poses, or breathing, those details which make the "practice relationship" clearer and more straightforward, but really, the RELATING aspect of ashtanga vinyasa yoga is the student's.
Finally (and a more heart-centered post would have begun here) one must say something about vulnerability, which does NOT mean revealing one's soft underbelly (only a culture of militarism thinks it does).
Vulnerability means being human, fleshly, heart-and-blood. In a teaching environment, vulnerability means being able to laugh, to say, "I don't know the answer to that," to fall out of a posture, to breathe along with the person you're giving a final squish to. It emphatically does NOT mean "I am vulnerable" except perhaps in the sense that we are all vulnerable, or in more interesting vocabulary, alive, able to relate, capable of the small sacrifice that is letting someone else make us laugh or elsewise relating to the rest of humanity. That lack of militant solitude is vulnerability, and again, only a militant culture rolls over and calls itself vulnerable. For the rest of us, it's simply humanity.
There is a theory, popular in film studies right now, called variously "tactility" or "touch" or such terms. The idea that one's body inter-relates with the bodies on the screen, that the cinematic movement (which is the essence of rolling film, "moving pictures") is in a physical relationship with our own moving bodies, skin musculature and viscera.
Or the idea, following Walter Benjamin, that "Dada art strikes the spectator like a bullet." In my classroom, anyway, that bullet is a very funny bullet. Or as the opening credits of Dusan Makavejev's 1971 film "WR: Mysteries of the Organism," have it: Feel. Laugh. Enjoy.
I titled a piece which will someday see publication (on Makavejev) by those intertitles.
This irrepressible movement to not just embrace, but to be embraced, to finally become my own moving picture, my own relationship, embodied, alive. This is the quest. It comes out as "meow meow I need more relating" but that is (as I will say later) a distraction. It's not the body that craves that attention, it's the mind. The body isn't evil desire and animality, it's just a piece of the cosmos, like an asteroid.
In my classroom, it's all, "Come on, take a dive! The water's great! We'll all swim together!" and that's not egalitarianism, but the idea that as I MOVE, as I do those gestures and commit the RELATING that is the teaching, I too make the sacrifice. Doesn't matter how many times I've taught the material. The idea isn't evil-body-immersion (although that is often the content), it's let's all relate about this material. Different levels of power and interest, sure, but what human relationship does not have those things?
Now, we see how it's all human, at long last, the conceptual project, the silly binaries, the narrative history, now it's all becoming flesh at last, even the concepts. Now we are in good position to write the "heart post" which should follow this so-heady one.