It is no secret that we are at the end of days. Each year I traverse the same forest and fields that I have walked since I was a child, when my parents followed the new human habit of seeking escape from modernity through immersion in nature, and they grow quieter.
It is certainly true that terror is nothing new. Our cultures have always maintained a duality of threat/achievement, but in the past hundred or so years the situation has escalated. World War I introduced the horrifying capabilities of modern warfare, then the atomic bomb suddenly enabled us to annihilate ourselves. Each increment of technological progress is followed by its negative inverse; for every supposed societal benefit there is in turn something equally destructive. Yet normalization allows the layers to build up. Each generation rises against some issue that is rarely rectified, and is then forgotten in the sense that it is shoved into the back of our minds—concealed beneath the accumulating layers of problems that must be repressed in our attempts to retain sanity.
This phenomenon is quite new. Our perspective of human evolution is bewildering: our bodies haven’t evolved significantly for thousands of years, yet our technological and mental progress has changed with ever faster complexity; a silent moment in our time is far fuller with the gravity of global problems than a moment a year ago. Not that a moment’s silence is even possible: the airplanes that pass over are far too loud and often, and our phones are too self-assured of their significance to let us rest. We speak of the glory of modern convenience, the triumph of human rights and liberties in our modern age, all the while numbing ourselves with addictions, television, and our anticipation of the weekend. There is no greater punishment than this concrete world, and this feeling—this unease that permeates everything.
In his essay defining post-modernism, culture critic Fredric Jameson highlights the schizophrenic nature of our current consciousness, how we exist no longer in the temporal, but in an echo chamber; history now being a constant reliving, as we yearn for something that never was. The breakdown of material signifiers leaves us overwhelmed by the larger-than-life feedback loop of simulacra, news, and unnatural living patterns. The great network we have invented has abolished the individual. Anxiety and alienation are ubiquitous, and consciousness has effectively ended since we no longer create, our only hope resting with the artists to whom we assign the responsibility of finding utopia in our world and showing it to us.
However, even this tradition is dead, as all art is made kitsch and commodified in this new phase of capitalism—the one where commodification is everything, as all culture is ultimately the mask of the pervasive presence of the state economy in all aspects of life. We see the world ending in the reflections of our glass screens, ignoring it as we are hypnotized by the moving image, our historical capacity replaced by our ability to make believe; anyone with a slight awareness would not contest the assertion that praxis is dead. This death is not without benefit; indeed, most political, economic, and cultural actors thrive off of this passivity, which is only encouraged by our social technology that quantifies every relationship we are possible of having.
The youth of today—my generation—are no strangers to this. We have seen how no one talks to one another anymore, how we can stumble into a conversation that illuminates these tragedies, but that will only leave us more miserable than if we had maintained the illusion—the joy of self-hypnosis and normalized dread. Rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety are all going up, and the only happy people I know are the ones who understand that it is revolutionary to be happy, and to find satisfaction autonomously from the system. I walk the forest and fields of my youth, but there is no longer truth in them, and the Earth is dying. Not to be morbid, but like my friend said to me the other day, “If the world were better, we wouldn’t be here.” I could speak of the other branch of post-modernist thought articulated by Marshall McLuhan that encourages our happiness with this situation. A complete embrace of our new lifestyles, as media replaces nature, suburb replaces city, and mimicry replaces truth. With dilated pupils we stare at the gray, repetitive, overwhelming reality we have fashioned for ourselves and proclaim with gritted teeth that we are happy.
When faced with a diagnosis like that, it is very tempting to simply shut down. After all, what can one human do? It is the ultimate form of psychological distress, to be aware of these things when we are functionally powerless, as even democracy is proving its impotence at executing the change that needs to happen. Any historian will tell you that this is plain as day. None of these institutions were constructed to address systemic issues like this, and the issues we face today won’t lend themselves to yesterday’s solutions. In fact, their very roots are in the framework that has been building and developing for millennia. Humanity has a long track record of responding to these global forces with immoral choices, founded upon self-interest, short-sightedness, and utter disregard for ecological consequences. But never have the consequences been this dire, and that is how they were able to inch by even with scientific warnings and the ubiquitous suppression of dissent. The system is at the brink of eating itself, but first it will try to make a buck, and that is why continuing business as usual is the most destructive thing we can do. As the poet Hafez once said, “Don’t blame your bad luck on the stars or the door of fate that creaks, look in the mirror and ask your own eyes who it is that wants you dead.” The only solutions are going to have to come from outside the constraints of the system that brought us here. Plain and simple, we need to radically change our paradigm.
One of the fundamental principles of our modern paradigm is our “order of things.” The problem of ecological catastrophe can be directly linked to the hierarchy of matter that we have established. The human tendency to perceive through a lens of duality has defined the categories of life and matter, thus validating the superiority of the human species and the subjugation of everything beneath. This traditional conviction is challenged, though, by developments in metaphysical theory. In her book Vibrant Matter, philosopher Jane Bennett traces the development of our concept of materiality, and how throughout history many voices have expressed that there is something more to physical matter than mere objectification.
This begins with the recognition of the self-organizing properties of inorganic matter. Following Manuel DeLanda, another influential proponent of a new realism in philosophical ontology, Bennett stresses the “inherent vitality” of all matter, how humans are a conglomeration of minerals, and though a more complex material system than most, a material system nonetheless. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari think similarly, considering reality as an assemblage, a heterogenous pool of things, all pursuing their respective means of defying entropy, beyond the realm of control or morality.
This moral ambivalence of assemblages explains a great deal of political history, as political theorist Hannah Arendt discovered when researching the roots of totalitarianism. “A cause is a singular . . . initiator of effects,” she observes, “while an origin is a complex heteronomous enjoiner of forces. . . . The event illuminates its own past, but it can never be deduced from it . . . intentions are the key to the event.” Movements like totalitarianism are the product of the strata of intentions within our assemblage, and with that we come to the horrifying realization that no one is to be blamed. The only thing worse than being at the mercy of a handful of fascists or capitalist pigs who supposedly have control is realizing that no one has control, and that no one could stop the machine even if they wanted to.
The financial crisis of 2008 illustrated this fact, as the true naivete of our economic captains was revealed. We therefore must take a more complex view of events and phenomena entirely, considering even so-called extraneous factors as contributors. How does diet shift the way we think? How do video games make us party to larger threats of violence? How does television normalize apathy on all fronts? This elusive quality of material organization allows us to conclude, like Hans Driesch, that there is some “knowing and willing” that is incorporated in material conglomerations’ constant process of becoming. Nothing is purely mechanical, as machines cannot self-repair or divide themselves to the degree that most things can. Temporality contributes to this discussion, because although things may appear to be merely “objects” from our fast-paced perception of time, when viewed from a larger geological time scale they can easily be considered “active.”
These metaphysics get very muddled, as every theorist is defining similar revelations with their respective rhetoric, but the gist is this: we all know and can sense that there is something more to this world. There is some force, some conatus, that manifests matter out of the momentum of quantum space—something that gives agency allowing things to come into being. It is the ambition of the vital materialist to see this, to perform what Theodor Adorno describes as a “negative dialectic,” an ownership of the feeling of unease we sense when apprehending objects: that there is something more to it than we can see, and the active striving to see it.
Conveniently enough, humans have had a word for this for a long time; we used to call this the “divine.” Bennett is hilariously dismissive of associating material vitalism with any notion of spirituality, despite the fact that her vision of a human consciousness that could fix our broken conceptual division between ourselves and the environment is quite aligned with the consciousness spurred by spiritual ecstasy; a complete union and awareness of the novelty within anything.
The ecstatic glory! How the cells of you and the wood of this floor have just so combined! The challenge isn’t acknowledging this, it is contemplating why! With the introduction of that question, a dissatisfaction with our current human situation and its present damaging and insignificant quality becomes strikingly clear. The novelty of this universe necessitates an evolution from our current existential adolescence into a more mature, meaningful existence; this would be a realization of the power of Arendt’s “intention.”
The exploration of the potentialities of this new existence can be found in the history of creative expression. William Blake considered the role of the artist or poet as one of unveiling God’s “poetic genius” that is present in everything. This close relationship between art and expression of the divine continued throughout the nineteenth century as painters and writers, following the ideals of Unitarianism and transcendentalism, sought its articulation through the representation of nature. By the end of the century, though, God was declared dead, and the impending prominence of the industrial landscape shifted art’s responsibility.
Writing in the late twentieth century, abstract painter Victor Pasmore describes this evolution. “Today,” he says, “the dynamic and synthetic idea of reality, presented by modern physics and philosophy, has placed ‘nature’ outside the range of direct sensation. As in the Middle Ages, therefore, abstract representation is once more necessary.” The abstract movement compensated for the departure from nature and God by declaring the significance of its art to be pure human expression: the new solipsistic religion. The absence of natural truth necessitated our gaze to be turned inward, and our expression became the metaphysical projections of our minds. Abstract artist Erich Buchholz notes the link between the rise of psychoanalysis, a field that originally centered around the pervasiveness of the human sexual drive in our reality, and the prominent sexual imagery in the works of male abstract artists in the early twentieth century. In his new view of historicity, Jameson considers modernist movements, which abstraction ought to be included in, as the first emergences of a global mass culture. Hans Richter narrates the development of abstract practices as the refining of a universal language of ubiquitous comprehension illustrating the “principle,” though not necessarily the “form,” of the natural organization of matter. Wassily Kandinsky advocated for painting’s advancement beyond the concept of world in favor of a more spiritualized and universal aim. This same ethos can be found in Piet Mondrian’s experimentation with opposition, lines, and the rhythmic void.
All of these advancements developed while the sciences were dramatically advancing our abstract understanding of space and time. Notions of relativity, wave particles, time, and speed were unveiling the rigid definitions of matter, illustrating that there were perhaps more subtle, yet integral, forces at work beyond the mechanics of the material. Mondrian defined his movement as the “conquer”[ing] of a “culture of the ‘intuitive’ faculties,” and of a “new realism.” Most importantly, this victory meant a liberation from the limiting character of objects and form, as a thing’s true essence is revealed.
So why are we still stuck? Indeed, it appears that the proceeding devolvement from the promise of modernism to the echo chamber of our time would seem to illustrate the risk of becoming too abstract. In The End of Art, Donald Kuspit discusses the unreachable quality of “high” art, saying that “it lays claim to all of one’s being, as though there was no alternative to it, which might offer a measure of detachment—a certain uncanny aloofness and serenity . . . and thus a different kind of sanity than the kind of sanity necessary to live in [the everyday world].” Often art seems to be nothing but an “ego-orgasm,” although this is, if anything, a departure from art’s true purpose of objective dialectic meditation on reality. There have been many instances of artists using abstraction to retrieve the lost didactic quality of art and successfully adapting it as a vehicle for a mystical embrace of the creative cosmos. The works of Barnett Newman and Hilma af Klint are examples of this creative vision. This “lost” quality of art is also expressed by Jameson’s post-modernism, as he decries the need for a new form of art that can be both effective and meaningful beyond the self and commoditization. We need a middle ground, something to express material vitality, and the close relation between the abstract and literal material. Perhaps if this intuitive balance is permitted to reveal itself, a better means of comprehending ourselves and the world will come into being, doing away with the madness of duality and extremes that brought us to this dark crossroads. Our acknowledgment of metaphysical nuances must be tied to an ecstatic appreciation for their larger manifestations. When it comes to reality, we are what we eat, and the future rests in the presence of metaphysical wonder in our art.
In a series of paintings exhibited at the “At Home in the World,” symposium at Haverford College, I have attempted to unite these ideas. They play with the concept of world, light, time, ephemeralism, and our constant unconscious dialogue with this metaphysical essence. Viewing my paintings in light of the ideas in this essay, I hope you will sense how we are on the cusp of a newer understanding that centuries of human evolution have been guiding us toward. An integral component of the necessary evolution in our societal consciousness will be a dialectic of how we each see these deeper truths aligning with a healthier ecological order, and what better medium for this discussion than our creative expressions, where concepts can be freely played with? I would like to conclude with Aldous Huxley’s poem “The Cicadas,” Huxley being an individual who was no stranger to the idea of seeing the “living light within everything.”
there is silence underneath the trees—
The living silence of continuous sound.
. . . an unseen people of cicadas fill
Night with their one harsh note, again, again,
. . . life is their madness, life that all night long
Bids them to sing and sing, they know not why;
Mad cause and senseless burden of their song;
For life commands, and Life! Is all their cry.
Thus are described the experts of true benevolent terrestrial habitation—the exalted yet terrifyingly passive simplicity of insect madness, existing in perpetual ecstatic realization of the miracle of life and material itself. Where do we toe the line? I search in gardens, the sound of stream replaced by metal highway.
Acknowledgment. This essay is based on the author’s presentation and exhibition from the “At Home in the World” Symposium at Haverford College, April 2019.