III. Individual + Society | Morals + Culture

Anne Harrington, Harvard Professor of History of Science presented her research of the human experience within a physical body. Science, predominantly, looks inside the body to understand what it means to human but very rarely do people explore the exterior parts (i.e,. skin) and the multitude of cultural beliefs about healing and recovery that play a role in how we care for the self and others. Harrington talked about experiences of animal magnetism or ‘mesmerism”. Mesmerism was a form of therapy and related to the act of exorcism. There was a belief that fluids and minerals in the body could be controlled through intentional movement and gestures (in a ritualistic sense). Along with Hypnosis and before the scientific method, people believed in forces beyond and outside the realm of human experience. Even now, many diseases are psychosomatic. If you think of the placebo effect, many people are led to believe they are cured of an illness through suggestions (i.e., taking medication). Off on a tangent, this reminded me of the phenomenon of skin lightning. The act of lightning is affected by cultural need or belief about social hierarchy, I know, it may be a stretch but it relates to how one may see themselves within a culture, which is a great segue to the next speaker who talked specifically about culture and its impact on being human.

Hazel Markus Diagram of the 4Is ~ Ideas, Institutions, Interactions, and Individuals - Image Source: edge.org

Social scientist, Hazel Markus, from Stanford University, began her talk with a story about her 10-year-old daughter wanting to play the cello and, subsequently, quitting the cello. The story concluded with the mother of a her daughter’s classmate calling Markus to ask why she let her daughter make the choice versus pushing her to continue. I believe the other mother was Asian. I think you know where this is going. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother sound familiar? Our models of self are defined heavily by our culture and history (Beau Lotto ala carte). Markus used the term, standard issue human, and our human components fall into the 4Is – Ideas, Institution, Interaction, and Individuals. Essentially, we think, feel, and act in accordance to our culture based on these 4Is. She stipulated two models of the self, which I found really interesting, 1) Independent and 2) Interdependent. Independent is defined as an individual, unique, influencing, free, and equal to others while interdependent means relational, hierarchical, and connected to others. Markus referenced the “mom-choice condition” where interdependent children are more motivated by what their parent provides to the child for intellectual (rather functional) use. Thinking back on how my mother raised me, I think it’s absolutely fitting to say she was an interdependent with a strong desire to raise an independent. That made for some interesting times growing up.

To round out the talk on the individual within society, Paul Ekman, UCSF professor emeritus, presented with no PowerPoint, which was extremely memorable! He definitely didn’t need them. As a behavioral science theorist and practitioner, he discussed how feelings are dependent on our constructive nature. We also describe our experiences through language but language has its limitations. The problem with language is based on the idea that words could not even begin to fully describe our emotional experiences. The very word happiness (alone) is misleading, he claims. It doesn’t point to all of these other factors that go into what we can actually describe as (true) happiness. (Side note: I’m a huge fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein who believed humans were linguistic animals. I mean, it is one of the things that separates us from other species. In any case, I was excited about Ekman’s talk). Ekman also specializes in facial coding and recognition. Imagine the show Lie to Me. Well, that’s what Ekman specializes in. His studies on deception are fascinating. He claims it’s human nature to WANT to be misled because, “We are bias to see threats that aren’t there”. Aside from Ekman’s research and years of wisdom, he was one of my favorite presenters from the conference. I guess I enjoyed what he had to say because it had to do with the fact that I’ve been ‘at a loss for words’, or lied (Sorry, Mom! Unfortunately for me, I’m a horrible liar!), or engaged in lying on behalf of a friend (I’m so happy high school days are over).

Personally, one of my favorite contemplatives (ever!)

IV. Conscious Experience

The last section of the day covered the Conscious Experience. Tami Simon was the facilitator for this last dialogue, which was between Gelek Rimpoche (Buddhist monk), Richie Davidson (Neuroscientist and Researcher), and Jon Kabat-Zinn (Scientist).

Being a human being, to Rimpoche, is creating a future with compassion and love. Rimpoche seemed hopeful the discussions on neurobiology and science suggest having empathy is intrinsic to human nature. Although a simple message, many Buddhist tenets, when incorporated in daily life can have a dramatic effect on the way we care for ourselves and others. Richie Davidson touched upon contemplative practice as “…a vehicle for becoming aware of our emotional life”. Familiarizing ourselves with our own mind and being conscious of our experience is imperative. One of my favorite quotes from the day was when Davidson stated, “An honest scientist needs to relish uncertainty”. Uncertainty is a part of knowing the self. Everyone WANTS to know and be connected to the world (all the time) and this is just not possible. Jon Kabat-Zinn mentioned the same method of dealing with life. Participating in meditative exercises to know the mind. He reminded us that there are about 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections but these cells came from 1 cell!! Trying to get at such a granular and molecular bird’s or bug’s eye view of ourselves can be very challenging though. Strangely, even though writing about the conscious experience was the easiest, it’s probably also the most difficult to understand. I’ve meditated on-and-off for the past few years and the times I do, it truly brings me back into the moment. However, I see other forms of meditation that don’t consist of sitting on a cushion (i.e., walking through a gallery or a museum, preferably when it’s extremely quiet) and looking around at what as been created). LIFE is a meditation but I guess it really matters the way in which one lives it and how they take their collective experiences and transform them into an opportunity to learn and ruminate. How many people actually do that? Sitting at the conference, all of those individuals there, that’s such a small fraction of the world! Overall, it was nice but at the end, I left wanting more…(Perhaps, this is exactly what the presenters wanted).

Suggestions for the next Being Human 2012 Conference

  • The conference can easily be two days
  • Incorporate more discussions that involve the arts (visual and performing)
  • A larger venue
  • A place for the media folks (press and bloggers) to connect with each other!
  • Have presenters answer questions from posed on the live Twitter feed

Another (recent) short paper I wrote on artist, Fernando Botero, for the course, Contemporary Art: History and Theory taken at UC Berkeley Extension (for Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Visual Arts).

************************************

One of the fundamental lessons in drawing class entailed drawing untold numbers of fruit, boxes and bags.  The exercises were required to instill the importance of actually depicting what existed in reality versus what the mind believes or thinks exists.  I was often reminded that we first see everything the wrong way and that it is our brain that turns everything right side up.  Understandably so, as the world and human cognitive processes evolve, ways of governing ourselves and let’s not forget the ways in which we’ve created social and gender constructs to function in the world and society at large; we often forget to try and understand a photographic depiction.  We take it for what it is.  From finding a photograph aesthetically pleasing to a sense of repulsion, there are instantaneous reactions.  It’s the closest depiction of reality and how we physically see something.  Yet, with post modern nuances of art entailing a conceptual and performative slant, it should not be forgotten the effectiveness of painting.  I would like to ask the reader to combine the tenets of philosophy and art to re-contextualize the way in which painting, in contemporary times, can offer a much more powerful way of understanding politics and how it coveys philosophical concepts in such a way language is unable to capture.  From Botero’s classical painting techniques, the viewer is afforded the opportunity to navigate biopolitics (as Foucault has coined), social constructs and ideology through the canvas.

Reading through Eduardo Mendieta’s paper entitled, Moral Optics, my interest was piqued in how philosophy and art are combined.  We see this convergence in post modern thought and art practice.  He discusses Foucault’s Biopolitics and its relationship to seeing as correlated to biopolitics and biopower.  From this, the reader gains a broader understanding of how Botero’s paintings take the imagery of Abu Ghraib produced by photography and brings the seeing to an inevitable understanding of torture through re-contextualization via painting.  Mendieta inculcates the reader to re-examine and learn new ways of seeing Foucault’s archeological dives into the human condition through histories of sexuality and power, which is integral to the current discussion yet for the scope of this writing, the points most correlated will be highlighted.  In his reflection of Foucault’s look at politics and power, I find myself most concerned with the following:

This new form of political power, or biopower, has evolved along two axes. Along one axis, it has developed a series of disciplinary technologies that come to bear upon the body as a machine. These technologies conform an anatomopolitics that aims to optimize the capabilities of the body by rendering it more docile and pliable to be inserted within systems of economic and political control and efficiency. Along the other axes, the body is treated not singularly but as part of a spe- cies, a genera, whose basis is entirely biological and organic. Here the body is seen as part of a system of life processes: birth, mortality, health, life expectancy, and anything that increases or decreases any of these. The body is seen as an instance of a species falls under the regulatory controls that conform a biopolitics of populations (Mendieta, 6).

First, understanding that there is a way in which a viewer perceives their own body within a culture, a society of bodies, is crucial.  If we were to examine Botero’s painting from a philosophical standpoint.  There is an act of knowing and acknowledgement that must occur prior to engaging in Botero’s work.  With the base knowledge of the body being part of a larger system, the body and mind become part of a larger system of symbiotic relationships.  Exploration of those power relationships that Foucault is so well known for is all the power relevant in political and contemporary art.  The contemporary art museum and gallery patrons can see this with the advent of specific types of museum and gallery collections (ie., Museum of African Diaspora, alternative art spaces to reach and represent various under represented minority groups, etc.).  With many various groups in the arts and although a completely different discussion, I felt compelled to start with a specific way in which to view post modern (contemporary) painting from this lens.

One of the reasons Botero’s paintings are extremely effective is due to a certain level of detachment the viewer experiences at first glance.  There is a stage of processing that occurs which does not necessarily seem to be present in photography.  Since photography is the closest depiction of reality, painting offers a graduation in perception and comprehension.  As I mentioned in the beginning of the piece, when one learns how to draw and paint for the first time, there are various techniques incorporated into the teaching that force the student to view only the shapes, lines and form of the object.  One of the methods, from my experience, includes looking at an actual photograph upside down to relieve the mind and brain of affixing a meaning.  In a way, this is what Botero’s paintings allow the viewer to do.  Mendieta explains several ways in which one can view the art works claiming that:

On the one hand, fatness stands in his paintings for the excesses of the privileged classes, which more often than not are ridiculed, scorned, and demoted. The haughty expressions, the ornate dresses, the regal accoutrements, the imperial posturing, are all neutralized and deflated by the heaviness of unbridled and undisciplined bodies. On the other hand, this very same abundant, solid, cherubic and baby-like fatness can be read as a form of humanization. What from an angle can be seen as an anxiety, from another angle, provided within the paintings themselves, allows us to see a vulnerable subject. Against a bourgeois, imperial, sovereign subject –Cartesian, Kan- tian, but most exactly, against the Cortésian and Pizarronian subject—Botero juxtaposes the cor- poreality of the flesh that is undisciplined and undisciplinable. We are irreducibly creatures of bod- ies that hunger and can die both of starvation or gluttony. Our flesh thus is always a source of a profound unease, for it can betray us to the same degree that it is what makes us vulnerable to another’s violence (Mendieta, 8).

The very fact that Botero’s paintings bring up quite a dichotomous way of seeing and thinking in terms of how we place ourselves in time and space is what makes painting such a relevant art form in contemporary times, if and only if the painter makes the wise decision of provoking the viewer into that stage of detachment to see what is actually there and what ought to be understood.  Comprehending in such a way that questions acts of violence and torture through an understanding of the body is only possible if the painter creates something that we cannot easily place meaning upon.  In many ways, showing us what we think we know in an unparalleled and unconventional way.

Overall, the framing of the subject and the artist outside the frame is integral in understanding Botero’s work.  As Mendieta points out with meditations on photography, painting has the ability to recontextualize systemic issues for the viewer that lead to a greater, deeper understanding of social, cultural ills.  In Botero’s case, specifically, painting offers a multifaceted perspective on the biopolitics of torture.  Mendieta asserts:

Painting has re-claimed its sovereignty over the field of representation and perception. Susan Sontag wrote, “photography is, first of all, a way of seeing. It is not seeing itself”…Painting, after the age of the mechanical reproducibility of chemically produced perceptual equivalences, teaches us that seeing itself is a way, a framing (Mendieta, 2).

Work Cited

Mendieta, Eduardo.  Moral Optics: Biopolitics, Torture and the Imperial Gaze of War Photography.  Stony Brook University, New York.  2009.