Hard-Rock Existentialism: The Megalith As A Beach-Head Of Being

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: The Utah monolith at its original site in the desert. Image credit: Patrick A. Mackie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In November 2020, an odd news item cut through the clouds of pandemic-induced haze with a sharp metal edge: way out in the Utah desert, a strange monolith had been found, a three-sided metal prism (and hence, not quite aptly called a ‘monolith’, with ‘-lith’ coming from Greek líthos, meaning ‘stone’). Subsequent comparisons of satellite imagery of the area revealed that it must have been set up sometime between July and October 2016, having remained unnoticed since—which means that, in an age where few people can do so much as have coffee without immediately informing the whole world via various social media channels, somebody (or -bodies) drove out into the middle of the Utah desert, dragging power tools and sheet metal with them, and assembled the 3m-tall structure, all without apparently telling a single soul. Even the monolith itself bears no identifying marks—no artist’s signature, no fabricator’s stamp, nor any cryptic symbols or a message on how to ‘guide’ humanity after the apocalypse.

Encounters with objects such as the Utah monolith have a slightly uncanny quality. All of a sudden, the natural structure of the landscape is punctuated by clear lines signaling something artificial—something, we expect, that has a purpose, something created towards some end. Something made, as opposed to something grown, or otherwise the product of natural forces. Something that exemplifies a certain design.

The Utah monolith teases all this, but refuses to provide any answers—and thus, it embodies an element of the absurd: a work with no purpose, a means directed towards no discernible end. Some anonymous creator has expended considerable effort for no apparent reason other than to put a metal column in a place where few, if any, would ever see it, and has left us no clue as to their motivation, no means to wrap our heads around the sheer implausibility of the thing’s jutting right out of the bedrock, wedging itself into the world and our minds like a knife between the ribs.

Should we then just chalk this up to the random whim of some eccentric? To a long prank, played at the expense of whoever might eventually chance upon it? Was the creator just driven by the same sense of impishness that makes people strap boards to their feet to trample down crops, creating circles some take for evidence of alien visitation? Read more »

An Existential Void: Liminality As Transition Between Rule-Spaces

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: A chess board, depicting the scholar’s mate.

Even if you’ve never played chess in your life, the image in Fig. 1 is probably readily identifiable to you. The regular grid of the chessboard, white and black standing in opposition, perhaps even the individual pieces—knights, pawns, bishops, and so on—are a cultural staple.

If you have some familiarity with the rules of chess, however, you will see more than that: rather than a mere configuration of items, you’ll see moves—options, dangers, strategies. For instance, the white queen is threatened by the knight on f6: a knight always moves in a specific way, one step diagonally, one step straight, allowing it to move to the white queen’s spot to capture. To evade, the white queen could capture the black pawn on e5—but then, would be captured by the knight on c6. A much better option—the move this particular configuration of pieces seems to scream out to you, if you’re a chess player with some experience—is for the white queen to move to f7, capturing the pawn, for check and mate: the so-called ‘Scholar’s Mate’.

Familiarity with the rules of chess adds a semantic dimension to the chessboard. The pieces acquire a particular, individual character: the knight is that particular piece that moves one straight and one diagonal; the bishop is the piece that moves diagonally; and so on. Rules transform the chess pieces from inert physical objects to something with a particular identity, something almost agent-like, capable of acting towards a certain goal. However, removed from the chessboard, they loose this character: a bishop and a rook, connected at their bases, make for a passable model rocket ship, for example.

Indeed, in a pinch, you could easily take a chess pawn to replace one of the tokens in a game of Ludo, or Halma—there, despite its somewhat odd looks, it will nevertheless fit right in, given a new identity by a new set of rules.

The chess-, Ludo-, and Halma-boards are examples of rule spaces. Read more »

Existential Choice

by Chris Horner

 At the heart of French existentialism – and especially the version associated with its most famous representative, Jean Paul Sartre – was the notion of radical freedom. On this view, when we choose, we choose our values and thus what kind of person we are going to be. Nothing can prescribe to us what we ought to value, and the responsibility of freedom is to accept this fact of the human condition without falling into the ‘bad faith’ which would deny it. The moment of existentialism may have passed, but the view that we are radical choosers of our values persists in many quarters, and so I want to consider how well this idea holds up, and what an alternative to it might look like.

Sartre’s account in Existentialism and Humanism,[1] of the young man who comes to him for advice is well known, but may bear a brief recounting here. Sartre recounts the (he says true) story of a man, one of his students, who, when France falls in 1940 has a dilemma. Should he leave the country to join the Free French forces or stay with his widowed mother? Either course can be represented as the right thing to do. The commandments of the Christian religion are no help in making the decision – love thy neighbour leaves it quite undecided who is the neighbour here: one’s family or one’s fellow patriots. And if the Kantian approach to ethics is to be recommended then it remains unclear how ‘act according to that maxim which you could will as a universal law’ would apply. The maxim ‘protect your mother’ or ‘loyally defend your country’ could both be contenders.

And so the young man comes to his professor for advice. But as Sartre points out, we tend to go to the person whose advice we are already disposed to take. In any case, the responsibility to take advice, to listen to another and follow their advice, is still one’s own. One cannot escape responsibility that goes with choosing to act. Read more »

Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain until 13th March 2016

by Sue Hubbard

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”

― T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land and Other Poems

ScreenHunter_1456 Oct. 26 10.13From the young painter who, in July 1948, sold his canvases from the pavement in the LCC ‘Open-Air Exhibition' on the Embankment Gardens, Frank Auerbach has become one of the most important and challenging painters on the British landscape. Despite his great friendship with the priapic and party loving Freud, Auerbach has, by comparison, lead the life of an aesthete; a monk to his chosen calling. He hardly socialises, preferring the company of those he knows well. He drinks moderately, wears his clothes till they fall apart and paints 365 days a year.

Though he rarely gives interviews and does not like to talk about his work, he has said of painting: “The whole thing is about struggle”. As Alberto Giacometti contended it is “analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness”…”the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it”.

It is out of this creative darkness, this complexity and unknowability of the world and the self that Auerbach has conjured his series of extraordinary heads, nudes and landscapes. Whilst the past for him may be a foreign country where they do things differently, one that he doesn't choose to revisit – “I think I [do] this thing which psychiatrists frown on: I am in total denial” – it's hard to walk around this current exhibition at Tate Britain and not feel that his dramatic early years had a profound influence on his work.

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