April 2011 archive

Prescriptive Art

Prescriptivism is a new art movement that embodies the notion that art can not only act as a mirror giving us a critical view of the world as it is, but can act as a window through to a better world.

Under the near ubiquitous influence of postmodernism, art has become largely critical. For the past several decades contemporary art has implicitly sought to challenge objectivity and encourage us to reflect on the way we subjectively project meaning on to the world. Furthermore, it  has sought to reveal the forces that shape the way we see the world, challenging us to divorce ourselves from the powers that be which seek to steer our worldview to their ends.

Critical art is descriptive: it seeks to hold up a mirror to ourselves and the world, revealing the way they really are – and ultimately presenting a sceptical argument stressing there is no way they really are.

One of the main tools of critical art is subversion. It seeks to disrupt our ways of seeing, and make us aware of the way we invest objects and scenes with meaning. It challenges us to question the way we construct reality.

Critical art is important, but it is not the only role that art can play. Art can also be prescriptive. Art – as it was not so long ago in our history – can be a window through to a better world.

Prescriptive art seeks to open that window, to open our imaginations to the way the world isn’t, but as it could be; the way the world should be.

Prescriptive art is not wedded to postmodernism. It is not implicitly sceptical of reality or of perception. Yet it isn’t naive about objectivity or the difficulty or even impossibility of seeing the world as it really is. Prescriptive art is an orthogonal movement to postmodernism, and one which is both challenging to the postmodern critical paradigm and complementary to it.

Postmodernism reveals the world in an unflattering light, demanding that it should be changed, yet offering no alternative world in its place. Prescriptive art explores the bounds of the alternatives and encourages us to think actively about how we would shape the world to conform to how we believe it should be.

Prescriptive art is inherently optimistic, but not naively so. It acknowledges the difficulty and risks involved with change. But it insists that if change is to happen, we need to employ our imagination in order to direct that change.

If you wish to engage with prescriptive art, follow this simple maxim: paint* the world as it should be.

*By “paint” is intended any form of artistic practice or expression.

Religion’s Retreat from Politics and Other Good News

The current fancy of religion being intertwined with political conservatism in the United States (and here – we have our own Family First party) is a fleeting trend, and one that is entering its final throes. So said Robert Putnam in a wonderful lecture he gave tonight at Sydney University.

I’m inclined to agree – and not only because I want to agree.

Putnam’s argument – also espoused in his new book, American Grace – was that the close relationship between religiosity and Republican partisanship that we see today only started in the early 1990s, and began as a wedge strategy intended to galvanise a conservative base against encroaching liberalism by appealing to the pervasive religiousness of most Americans, tapping in to socially conservative issues such as abortion as the hot buttons.

And it worked. Putnam showed evidence that around the early 1970s there was no correlation between religious attendance (as a proxy for religiosity) and partisan preference. In fact, in the late 1960s, if you were more highly devout, you were more likely to vote Democrat. But that had all changed by the 1980s, and particularly into the 1990s.

Makes sense. Old school Republicanism used to be represented by the north-eastern industrialists – hardly a religious bunch. Too distracted by money and cigars. Conversely, there were the ‘southern Democrats’ who, until the quakes of the civil rights movement rocked their foundations, were deeply religious but were working class and voted for labour and community issues.

But in the 1990s that changed. And it’s already beginning to backfire.

The United States now sports a record number of what Putnam drolly calls “young nones”; the now 18% of the population – and upwards of 30% of youth – who list their religious affiliation as ‘none.’ However, it’s presumptuous to assume they’re atheists; many still profess a belief in God, but they disassociate with organised religion.

Putnam’s thesis is that they see the vitriol of the religious right directed towards progressive social issues, and they identify religion – particularly evangelical Christianity – with homophobia, militant anti-abortionism, bigotry and other socially conservative positions that are thoroughly unsavoury to minds shaped by the liberal 1990s.

So they move on. Both from organised religion and from Republicanism. As the old conservatives – the relics of the pre-1950s world – die off, these ‘young nones’ will start to have a much greater impact on politics.

The upshot: perhaps we can hope for a world where religiously-fuelled extreme social conservatism is divorced from politics. In fact, let’s not hope. Let’s expect it.

Let’s stop giving credence to the extreme religious lobby. When they pop their heads up and spout some ludicrous line, such as that art should pass through a classification board, let’s just chuckle and say “well, extremists would say that” and move on to more important matters, like deficit reduction or mitigating climate change.

Religion isn’t necessarily socially conservative. Certainly, organised religion leans that way – group membership, loyalty, in-group favouritism and out-group vilification etc are how organised religion stays organised. But religions also preach love, charity, forgiveness, peace – all bastions of progressivism.

By crikey, it’ll be nice to look back on all this. To look back on the 2000s and remark at how aberrant this religiosity was. It may not take long before we’re looking back with a wince and a sigh and saying just these things.

Reality and its Depictions

It’s of interest to me that film makers, largely of the Hollywood persuasion, are inclined to modify reality in order to conform to our expectations of reality rather than, well, real reality.

In the pseudo-reality of the blockbuster grenades disgorge great plumes of flame and cause provocateurs to hurtle through the air, slowly. In reality grenades evince a short, sharp BANG and emit a cloud of smoke along with supersonic compression wave that crushes rather than pushes. And that’s not to mention the shrapnel. They rarely produce flame, nor drama. Only noise and tragedy.

What’s interesting about this is that if a blockbuster offered an accurate representation of a grenade, the audience would quite likely be thrown into confusion, jolting them out of the fantasy. “What was the puff and bang? It couldn’t have been a grenade.”

You can almost hear the effects department advising the director: “Grenades don’t look like grenades on film. You gotta use pyrotechnics.”

And it’s not just that fireballs are more dramatic than real grenade explosions. I fully appreciate artistic licence. But artistic license is intended to remove the undramatic elements of reality and replace them with dramatic alternatives. However, grenades are, in my opinion, intrinsically dramatic, at least as dramatic as a fireball. It’s just that puff-and-bang is not what people expect when a grenade goes off on screen. They do expect a fireball.

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Political Philosophy and EVE Online

Even if you don’t dabble in massively multiplayer games, EVE Online is worth a look just for the revelations that emerge from creating a loosely regulated world and opening it up for nerds to play with.

This interview with The Mittani, who is CEO (or guild leader) of Goon Fleet, the largest corporation in EVE, is solid gold. Enlightening even. It touches on politics, human nature, psychology and even has traces of game theory lurking just under the surface

One of the greatest advertisements of all time.

First, a bit of context for those unfamiliar with the game. EVE is a space-based massively multiplayer online (MMO) game where thousands of players flit between hundreds of solar systems, each with unique planets, moons, asteroid fields and space stations, and they mine, trade and fight. Often they fight each other.

EVE has one of the most active player-versus-player (PvP) communities of any MMO. A large tract of space in EVE is called nullsec, meaning it is effectively lawless. While a player will become an outlaw and be hunted by computer-controlled authorities for attacking another player in high security (highsec) space, in lowsec there’s no automated retribution. It’s true frontier stuff.

Players can also band together to create corporations, mining the rich resources in nullsec, using those resources to build ships, equipment and even space stations. These corporations effectively gain sovereignty over that sector, and they protect it from invasion by other corporations.

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Synthesis Begins: From Little Things…

Interdisciplinary research (IDR) is hard. But it can be improved. And there are a few ways to improve it that haven’t been tried in earnest yet.

That’s the upshot of the first meeting of the interdisciplinary research group, tentatively toying with the title Synthesis.

In attendance were myself, Tim Dean (philosophy PhD & science journalist); John Wilkins (philosopher of biology); Tibor Molnar (philosopher and engineer); Nigel Cadogan (mathematician); David Kidd (information science; publisher; journalist).

Challenges of IDR

We first discussed IDR broadly and acknowledging that our own forays into IDR have proven to be halting affairs for manifold reasons. At the top of the list is that academia simply isn’t built to handle ideas that cross more than a couple of disciplinary boundaries.

The structure of contemporary academia is such that each discipline is neatly siloed, hammering away at its own problems and happily outputting to its specialist journals. This approach is safe, the institutions know where to put people (biologists go in the biosciences building), the funding bodies know how to fund it (biologists get money for biology), the researchers know where to publish (biology journals).

However, step outside the bounds of this machine and things start to break down. If a particular question is best answered by individuals from three or more different departments, the academy just puts it in the too hard basket. There are few or no facilities to encourage interaction between disciplines. Communication is difficult. Funding bodies don’t know how to judge the merit of the research. And journals shy away from any content that isn’t explicitly within their remit.

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Synthesis in Provence

Sacrebleu! I’ve had an abstract on interdisciplinarity and Synthesis accepted for the International Journal of Arts & Sciences conference in Aix-en-Provence in southern France.

It goes a little something like this:

Most would agree that interdisciplinary research (IDR) is oft lauded but relatively little employed in contemporary academia. While the benefits of IDR are widely recognised – such as it yielding new questions, approaches and insights by combining the findings and methodologies of multiple specialist disciplines – there are considerable barriers to effective IDR. These include inherent difficulties in communication between specialist disciplines, challenges securing funding, a lack of journals dedicated to non-specialist research and cultural clashes and power struggles between individuals and departments within institutions and between disciplines. These challenges are compounded by the lack of an overarching framework guiding how IDR is conducted. In this paper, I propose the formation of just such a framework. Where traditional IDR is conducted in a bi-lateral manner, this new framework represents a multi-lateral approach, analogous to a United Nations of IDR. Under this framework, IDR would be driven by specially trained specialist-generalists who are able to communicate and translate between individuals from multiple disciplines, raise new questions to be investigated, bring individuals from disparate disciplines together, help secure funding, and facilitate IDR, outputting it to both specialist journals as well as new journals dedicated to IDR. Such an approach could encourage greater IDR, thus liberating many insights locked away within specialist disciplines to be shared more broadly.

It was a somewhat off-the-cuff initiative, sending an abstract in. But I’ll be in Latvia early May, Turkey for a week after that, goodness knows where for a week after that (attempting to complete a production deadline on Australian Life Scientist remotely), and then this is just after. Figured I’d pop in.

It’s a part of my ongoing sub-obsession with interdisciplinarity and my mad dog idea of how to improve it called Synthesis.

In fact, I had a very motivating meeting with some other interested individuals, including John Wilkins from Evolving Thoughts, on how to make the idea of a massively-interdisciplinary meta-discipline work. I’ll be posting something soon on what was discussed at that meet, and where we’re going next.

So, if you’re in France in the first week of June, do drop in to the conference. I’ll be the chap with the beard and antipodean accent rambling on about having all disciplines hold hands around a tree and cry together, then go get a grant.